Poetry, Music & Theater, Oh, My

Poet and critic Dana Gioia advised in Can Poetry Matter that poets Scanshare the stage with musicians and offer the audience work by other poets, more than the single focus drone of a conventional reading. Last evening the Denver Puppet Theater hosted a significant event featuring live poetry and music. The poets performed original material, as well as selections from Shakespeare, Sandburg, Williams, and other well-known writers. The musicians played and sang soulful blues and provided musical commentary and reflection to the poetry. Because there is no such thing as bare stage at Denver Puppet Theater, the audience had hand puppets to hold, play with, cuddle if they wanted. So our senses were well served: eyes, ears, touch, taste (there were refreshments available at the adjacent Zook’s Ice Cream and Coffee).

This presentation served up poetry in a way that was more than palatable. It was delicious, designed to woo an audience with well-directed, well rehearsed art that connected us like a web, a tapestry, a hand-knit sweater: music to poetry to performance to audience. Ah! And what’s more, it was a gift. There was no commercial agenda, no one promoting a new book or an upcoming event. No solitary, outsized ego being touted. No admission fee. The performers and director gave us the hours they had spent rehearsing, Zook’s gave us a unique venue with ample seating, and we gave back our attention and applause. Bravo, let’s do it again.

Merci to musicians Dave Greenwald, Mark Lane, John Rasmussen, director SETH, and poets Cyndeth Allison, Kathleen Cain, Cathy Casper, James Steel (aka The Man of Steel), Jacqueline St. Joan, June Shurrock, Roz Taylor and Marleine Yarnish. Applause, applause!

Writing Violence: Yes/No?

How is it that Nevada Barr could invent the violence that drives her novel Winter Study? Barr has put her main character, Anna Pigeon, through horrific misadventures over the long course of her park ranger mysteries. In this one Anna nearly freezes to death, very nearly drowns and witnesses scenes that ravage her mind and her memory. How can a writer do that to someone she has created as surely as if born of her body? I have written violent scenes, and can only say that the story demanded it and I delivered. I suspect that is what drives Barr. The story is often larger than the lead character. But real violence has become an international pass time. As a writer, I struggle with where to put it in my heart and in my work.

Recently I heard a writer whom I admire say that he felt the need to write more violence into his work, because another writer had said that any American (read U. S.) writer not writing about violence is not being truthful to our culture of killing. I won’t do it. This is a limited and limiting world view. During this wretched stretch of news, for solace I turned to Barbara Kingsolver’s essays, Small Miracle. She wrote the title essay in response to 9-11, but what she had to say is fresh again. And in one of the essays she says that she reads the news, listens to the news but rarely watches the news. I’m with her in this. Life has more to offer than live-stream murder, and as visual creatures, human beings imprint on the gore. How do young minds distinguish real death from fiction?

I’m not naive. I spent almost two decades as a nurse, and as horrific as some of the work was, violence was not and is not the only truth. Conflict between people or fictional characters is more nuanced than a gut-shot cadaver. The emotional response to grief and rage is a coat of many colors and textures. If violence erupts in my writing, I hope the scene rises from within the circumstances rather than painted on like graffiti in a toilet stall, all shock and no awe.

Finding Words that Matter

Like many people I know, I was  struck dumb by recent national news. Words could not say what I felt, so I just sat with that sadness for days. Yesterday two friends came to my house for a writing session and today I feel better. We did what we usually do, let the conversation wander where it wanted to go, and then we set a timer and wrote about whatever had substance in that moment. I wrote the words “accomplishment, what does that mean and how do we measure it?” Bingo! Synapses resumed their little sparks of electricity and I thought about the way culture works (no, not opera and ballet or big books and art films). Every talent matters, whether it’s one singer, one poet, one essayist. Collectively, we enlighten each other and mostly we do this locally. As Lewis Hyde wrote, the gift must move on.

Sorry to say, I cannot heal the wounds of the people saddened or killed by guns. I cannot wrest progress from a government that cares more about business and power than about the people they were elected to serve. What I can do is be open to opportunities to treat others with respect, share whatever skills I have and “keep the faith.” Not faith in a distant god or a strict regimen of prayer. Keep the faith that we are not all bad, meaning none of us is worthless, but then, none of us is saintly. There’s a line in the Tao Te Ching  that I lean on (# 9 in the Stephen Mitchell translation). It’s impact changes depending on where I put the stress: “Do your work, then step back.” If I come down firmly on your, it’s a clue to pay attention to whatever I have to offer. And then get out of the way. And expect others to do their work.

Revise and Let It Loose

Many hours this past week I prepared to keep a promise to my writing group from Wellfleet that I would be more proactive about submitting work for publication. I have a pretty hefty publications list already, but it’s stale. Prior to the workshop in June I had concentrated on writing new material and didn’t have the energy to attend to what already existed. Well, advice I heard in the workshop was to take risks, send the work out. Writing needs an audience. Yes, I know that. I believe that. So why would I hesitate?

Fear of rejection, fear of exposure and fear of inadequacy: all play a part in the urge to hide my writing under a big rock. But it is also true that offering work to the world makes me a better writer. Knowing that a reader, editor or publisher will cast a mean eye on my work leads me to question the piece before I hit send or drop the submission into the mail box. Have I done my best to make the writing clear, fresh, and worth the paper it might be printed on? Is the title intriguing, inviting, wacky enough to make someone read on? Does it have substance and endurance? This challenge keeps me polishing when it would be easier to stuff it in a notebook and let it rot.

Exposing my work to others can have a down side: I’m guilty of people pleasing and can be overly sensitive to the taste of other writers. One of Marge Piercy’s rules for groups is to respect each other’s style and substance. I know I’ve been writing under the influence–not of Irish whiskey, though that’s appealing–and I’m trying to be more confident that the work I produce, poems or fiction, has to be my choice, my responsibility. After listening and considering any advice I get, I have to trust my intuition and my intention when to call a piece done.

Do You Duotrope?

Having written poetry for decades, I have about 300 pieces that have not been published, some for good reason, some because I felt overwhelmed tracking and sorting them. In response to the promise I made to myself and the Wellfleet Dozen (twelve women in Marge Piercy’s recent poetry workshop), I spent hours this week updating my spread sheet on a site called Duotrope (Google it). This site will allow me to track where an individual poem has tried to worm its way into an editor’s heart, and when it succeeds, out there in poetry land, I can stuff it into the retired/published category, where it will rest until I choose to include it in a collection. The site does not keep the poem, just its title and its submission history.

This website costs $5.00 a month to maintain, and can be used for fiction, individual poems, manuscripts, etc. If you start early and maintain it on a regular basis, you will not have to replicate my process of hours on screen catching up. Furthermore, the site sends members a newsletter about potential markets with detailed info, like rejection rates, length of time until a reply, etc. If you return to a market you have previously tapped into, Duotrope keeps that information and reminds you which pieces have already been offered to a particular publication. No embarrassing comments like “We didn’t like this the first time we saw it.”

I looked at several other websites before going back to Duotrope, but none of the others that I found were as complete, and for the price, it’s a great help. So, I am better prepared now to keep my promise to be more proactive about submissions. Now if I can unclench my fingers from the keyboard, I’ll go get breakfast and then come back to my desk to send off a submission or two or five.

What Words Can’t Say

As you read this, I am driving away from Wellfleet, Massachusetts, or maybe I’m in Logan International waiting to board a flight home to Colorado. I cannot give you the whole week I’ve just spent on Cape Cod. Only certain details and they may not be the ones you would like to hear. Generalities like intense or fast moving won’t do. I’d like to give you the sight of Wellfleet Harbor every morning where I sat with my coffee, watching the light play with the water, the occasional boat head toward the open ocean, the sea roses, the exact color of the beach sand. But you’ll see only what you know of these images. If you have never tasted lobster or fried clams, I can only tell you that they are worth the cost and the calories.

You will have to imagine thirteen women clustered around a table in a conference room and breathing in poetry. One of those women was, of course, Marge Piercy, an energetic and clear-headed poet, novelist, teacher, who challenged us with daily assignments and who expected us to rise to the challenge of the poetry techniques that she focused on each day. You missed a fine, fast-paced poetry reading Thursday night at the Wellfleet Library. And the after party with six flavors of ice cream and several rounds of impromptu poetry.

I’m sorry you couldn’t be at the party at Marge’s house on Friday night. Sorry to be sketchy and a little insular. This pocket of time is gone and won’t come back. Oh, the participants who connected will stay in touch, will share news and poems via email or Face Book, those alternatives to the handwritten letters that once upon a time ended up in collections or memoirs. The memories are our souvenirs, better than a t-shirt or book bag, much better than not having spent the money and time and effort to be here. Thanks Marge, Wendy, Jen, Janine, Leslie, Wilderness, Susan, Norma, Dana, Stacey, Sherine and Marianne. Safe home.

When Is Enough Time Not Enough?

I’m pretty much faithful to this blog; most Saturdays there’s something new related to the world of books, writing them, reading them, loving or hating them. I almost missed today because I have been 1. Hospice sitting a family dog and 2. Working on remembering what day it is. Hey, it’s Saturday! How did that happen? Well, Karen, Saturday always comes between Friday and Sunday. Oh, right. Truth is, I’m focused on tomorrow because that’s the day I go to Cape Cod in order to become part of a week-long poetry workshop under the guidance of one of my favorite writers, Marge Piercy.
In fact, I’ve had my eye on this date in the calendar for over a year now, since Ms. Piercy first agreed to include me this year. You’ll just have to imagine my mind set. Pack–be sure to take the right notebook, don’t forget the copies of poems for the Monday morning start, remember how chilly it gets in New England even in June. Leave the house in Maine and dogs and cat in good order. Find the BnB without getting lost. (Siri has been a little unreliable this week, with several instances of “No service, Siri is not available, I’m sorry, but I cannot connect to the internet.”
You get my point? Siri’s fickle and I’m not myself today. I’m a writer about to dive into deep water and I might be over my head. See, I’m already flailing around with cliched prose. So, wish me luck, no wish me hard work, good attention and dedicated listening. Next Saturday I will leave the Cape to fly back to Colorado, but I might be clear headed enough to use the long layover that afternoon to let you know how things went this week. Bye for now.