Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

All About Poets #2

In the 1980s I taught composition and intro to literature at LSU-Shreveport (Louisiana), and of course, teaching meant the occasional academic conference, often an offshoot of Modern Language Association. The one in question here might have been at Texas Christian University, but the true location is mired deep in my faulty memory.
      What stands out is the poet who was a special guest, Lucille Clifton. Ignoramus that I was, I went to her reading because it was at least poetry after a full craw of collegiate oatmeal. The thing is, and I’m now appropriately embarrassed, I had never heard of Clifton. To my credit, I still remember her reading “homage to my hips.” Well now, here was a woman with no apology about her body. One could learn something about feminism from her, and I was then devouring books by Gloria Steinam, Germaine Greer, and Adrienne Rich. And that one poem did more to awaken me than I can say.
     A call to reality in a world of cosmetics and body shapers is still one of the benefits of poetry, and I’m still cooking it up and swallowing it whole. So thank you, Lucille Clifton, for that pinprick in my angst about body image.
     You know, though, there’s a bit of grit on my tongue here: after the reading Clifton was seated in the front row of the meeting room and in passing I told her that I had liked her poems. (Liked? A watery compliment for a reading that has stayed with me for decades.) And then, I asked if she had a book out. The only excuse I can think of for my ignorance is that the introducer made hash of her remarks and why the hell were there no books in view? There, I blame my faux pas on the host institution, wherever it was.
     Just so you know, Clifton has in her resume the National Book Award, Juniper Prize and a couple of nominations for the Pulitzer. Her first book, Good Times, was one of the ten best books of 1969 according to the New York Times. In 1969 I was chasing a toddler and writing exactly zip, zero, nada.

All About Poets #1

After many years as part of a tangible community of writers, looking back I know how fortunate I’ve been to meet many fine poets (and a few not so fine). This is the first of a series of remembrances of poets I’ve known.

Robert Creeley has a prominent place in my pantheon of poets. Is his soul aramble? There’s probably a reason why he has risen first to the top of the list. If you’re there, you are welcome, Bob.

I knew of him when I enrolled in a poetry class at St. Mary’s College near Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. When the class first met the instructor, an anonymous man whom I remember not at all, except for his question: “Is this a poem?” And he read Creeley’s “I Know a Man.”  (You can see the poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/search?query=I+Know+a+Man.)And I replied with ignorant certainty, “Sure.” But then I had to defend my belief.

To this moment it’s hard to break it down, but it looks like a poem and acts like a poem, so it’s not a duck. It’s full of ironic speech–calling the man John, who is not John, the suggestion that a car might help them live through the coming dark, and the revelation that the speaker is at that moment driving, but not well.

I can read it as metaphor–the speaker knows and wants to escape the dark, which confuses him, makes him unaware of where he is and what he’s doing. But, aha, more delightful, it puts me right into the experience of The Driver and Not John. Takes me out of my floral easy chair and into the back seat of that careening car.

Bob was a good one. In Maine we claimed his as one of our own. The Preface to his Selected Poems (University of California Press, 1991) is signed “Robert Creeley, Waldoboro, Maine, August 14, 1989.” Three times I heard him read locally, once in a hollow room where he seemed far away, though I was in the front row. That time he read poems about his family. (He claims in that preface that Robert Graves considered him a “domestic poet.”) Maybe he read “I Love You.” It’s about his Aunt Beatrice. Or “Four Years Later,” about his mother’s death. I can’t say for sure. And there was a reading at the State Theater on the corner of High and Congress Streets in Portland. I was there with Patrick Murphy, the “napkin poet” of Portland and a friend of Bob’s. Creeley looked up to  our back row seats and said, “Pat, can you hear me up there?” I was proud to be at least in the penumbra of Bob’s vision.

Another time he read at an art gallery on Munjoy Hill, poems about Helsinki and his then current wife. It was a crowded venue with wine after. Bob and I sat under a table and talked about a line of his, which I was, he said, misinterpreting. He smiled as he said that. I remember the smile, though not the line. 

My Creeley connection had actually started in the fall of 1984 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. My friend and co-author Beverly Rainbolt and I went to a poetry conference at the university, star struck. We breathed the same air as Creeley, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Louis Simpson and Charles Bernstein. Our real goal, in addition to breathing along with the talent, was to put a copy of our joint chapbook, Visible Progress, into Creeley’s hands. We tracked our prey to the sidewalk between readings and scored a direct hit. He was polite and accepted the “gift” that we forced on him. And after that conference Beverly and I went back to our weird work at the arts center we had created in an old warehouse in Shreveport.

Within a couple of weeks came a brief letter from Creeley praising our work, and signing off with his customary “Onward!” I have that letter and the envelope framed and hanging on my wall. Some time afterward I left Shreveport to return to Maine and Beverly moved to New Orleans, and that was that.

(See you soon with a piece about Lucille Clifton.)

Writing w/Van Gogh

If you are not familiar with ekphrastic writing, look it up. Try it. Find a piece of visual art that inspires you and write a poem in response to it. My friend Jane Costain just published her chapbook, Small Windows, all of which is ekphrastic. Lighthouse Writers Workshop sponsors a monthly drop-in writing session led by Michael Henry at Denver Art Museum. And Lighthouse collaborates with American Museum of Western Art in another monthly ekphrastic writing event. In fact, I have a poem forthcoming in AMWA’s annual publication, Writing the West, Vol III.

Of course, you may know the famous poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams, a fine example of the genre. Last week one of my favorite libraries, Anythink Wright Farms, held an unusual event that relates. The library brought in two visual artists from Violet Hive Art Therapy. And with guidance from Amy and Bridget, we were encouraged to create a piece of visual art inspired by Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” or “Sunflowers.”

Far from the comfort of words I hesitated but also remembered that many years ago I had enjoyed a drawing class. And whoa! The technique of looking at only the sunflowers and trusting my hand with the pencil, something appeared on my blank page. And here it is, a lion (sort of) from a sunflower, a poem in oil crayon.


I’m not going to give up writing, but drawing was not as scary as I thought it would be. My insistence on logic made me give it a stem so instead of a sunflower, my flower is a Dandy Lion. And those eyes, the hidden message, says Amy, is that I’m looking for something. If I find out what that is, I’ll let you know.

I, You, He/she/it/they?

Recently I attended a workshop on point of view and came away confused and overwhelmed. The teacher presented us with six versions of POV with short examples. Too much for me to absorb in one hour. And it all felt prescriptive, as if I ought to select a POV before the story or memoir begins. (Poetry never entered the room, ever the unwelcome guest in a garden party.)

So what do I think about POV? I think it grows out of the relationship between the writer and the reader. It has to do with distance. Mostly, it has to do with voice. Whose voice does the writer transcribe as the piece develops? And it makes its presence known in the language, especially the pronouns, those pesky little words that mean so much. First person–I, we–suggests but does not guarantee a closeness between the narrator and the reader. And it can be unreliable, or as a plural it can hint at connection or community. If a writer dares speak for others, well, go for it. In some cases, it can be useful. In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the whole town seems to be telling the story, and in that process revealing a common displeasure and disinterest in the history of the gentile but rebellious Emily. You might want to read this short story.

Really, there is no shortcut to finding the perfect voice to tell a story. Even in memoir we edit our language and revelations. I say, write the story as it comes, set it aside and go back when your head clears, hoping to find that the narrator keeps us reading and is somewhat consistent in telling the tale. Better still, notice how books you love (or hate) work. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who scored a Pulitzer for the novel. My inner jury is still sequestered. Greer makes some quirky turns in POV, startles me out of the flow of the story. Halfway through, I’m in no position to judge him. Besides, he has a major award, and I don’t. Does that tell you something?

Stuck? Go with it!

No one I know proceeds through a writing project without the occasional stutter step. Sometimes I fall, not from grace, but a face plant. Dry docked, shut down, blocked. Ouch! And that’s just the day that some skeptic asks how the book is selling, or when I’m doing a public reading. All I can do is shrug and own my stalled “career.” It’s momentarily embarrassing, a suggestion that, as my inner critic sometimes reminds me, I’m not really a writer. A real writer has an agent, an editor, a PR person, and a house on a hill. So what am I doing living in a basement apartment (which I actually like) and counting my dimes and dollars?

This angst is part of creative writing, as opposed to the popular image of authorship. My “ship” is a dinghy dragged up on the shore until I push it back into the water and take up the oars again. And row, maybe with no destination but an intent to go where the tide takes me. Just see what’s there and enjoy the sun and the breeze. It’s not a lost day if all I do is journal, muse on paper. (Hmm, that sounds like a line for a poem, or a new sandwich.)

If you too get stuck, just go with it. You might need a break, but I doubt you’re broken.

This One’s for the Birds

The workshop at Columbine Poets of Colorado today featured poems in honor of The Year of the Bird. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a conservation measure prohibiting the “pursuit, hunt, take, capture, kill or sale” of migratory birds in the US.

It has nothing but coincidence to do with the fact that this week I started circulating a poetry manuscript titled The Gift Bird. I will, however welcome whatever synchronicity ensues. I’ve become more and more fascinated by birds and I have many, many poems that refer to birds. In honor of all this avian coincidence, I offer you a list of some of my favorite books about birds.

Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds

Barnes, Simon. How to Be a Bad Bird Watcher

Barnes, Simon. The Meaning of Birds

Cocker, Mark. Birders: Memoirs of a Tribe

Leck, David. The Life of a Robin

Lorenz, Konrad. King Soloman’s Ring

Moss, Stephen. A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Bird Watching

Nicolson, Adam. The Seabird’s Cry

Peattie, Donald Culrose, Ed. A Gathering of Birds: An Anthology of the Best Ornithological Prose

Rothenberg, David. Why Birds Sing

Tudge, Colin. The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live

Young, Jon. What the Robin Knows

Read for Equality

Regular followers know that I sometimes list books or reminders meant to promote equality in publishing and reading. Well, here’s one that I want to highlight: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I chose to read this book because it will be featured at a book club this week in Boulder. By the time I finished reading and went to sign up, the discussion was already full. That’s a little frustrating but a good sign that adult readers have plenty to say about what is touted as a YA novel. That’s not half of it. This story takes us into the life of sixteen-year-old Starr, a black girl attending a primarily white school and managing to fit in, although at times she feels invisible and divided, her diction tailored, one vocabulary at school and another in her neighborhood. Quickly, we get in deep, as there is a white-cop-black-victim shooting, and Starr is the only witness. Add gangs, drugs, and poverty. Enough excitement yet?

From this point on the narrative tears through racial tensions, including Starr’s attachment to her white boyfriend and to her radical black father who loves her but opposes the romance. And that’s just part of the story. What I most appreciate is the view of family life, complexity of community, and character development as Starr wrestles with opposing decisions, to speak out about the shooting or to maintain a polished image in her affluent white school despite her impoverished home neighborhood. Additionally, the writing is fine, well developed and perfectly plotted. If this is YA, good for the young people who will read it. Better still for the adults who might not notice it without prompting.