No way to explain how I find the books I want. I’ve praised my favorite library and fussed about my least favorite. Maybe library sprites listen to what goes on in my private conversations and in my busy brain. Recently, I looked at my own poems and noticed how very many times I refer to birds. Well, if that’s a subtle theme, I thought, I should pay attention to it. So I told a friend that I wanted to study ornithology. Pretentious, that.
But the next time I walked into my local library, there was a fine new book by British writer Simon Barnes, The Meaning of Birds. I’ll be darned. Now my current notebook is full of quotes and details about birds, far more interesting than what I’ve gleaned over years of owning a traditional bird identification book. Looking a bird in the eye is not all there is to birding.
I scouted around, found my binoculars–Barnes calls them bins–and tucked them into a small pouch along with a pen and a few index cards (one of my indispensable tools as a writer) and put on my walking shoes. And sure enough, I saw a bird in a tree–no surprise that–and with the help of the bins I watched that patient creature long enough to describe it on a card. When I got home I determined that what I had met was a female flicker. Nice!
Maybe getting what I want in the world is mostly a matter of being ready to be surprised. I don’t really need a formal course in ornithology. I need to get out of the house and open my eyes. And, as Barnes advises, don’t leave the bins at home.
I’ve been reading David Orr’s You, Too, Could Write a Poem: Selected Reviews and Essays, 2000-2015. Orr’s style and substance are fine, and he goes deep into issues that concern me. Circumstance or synchronicity, not sure which, drew me to copy into my journal the question of whether or not a “bad man” could write “good poetry.” Well, my answer is yes. I think.
Within hours, though, I was blasted by NPR with the news that one of my favorite poets has been accused of sexual misconduct and has apologized, a whiff of guilt. I’m not happy about this. The rise of the MeToo issue matters; so does the character of writers in this wretched stretch of public life where we need more than ever to rely on our best talents.
The poetry books on my shelf still mutter, “Read me, read me.” But I don’t know how to read them today, given this unhappy news. The words still line up; they do not blush red-lettered from shame or embarrassment, but my relationship to them has changed. What felt like shared truth feels–oh, icky. If I read the books, am I endorsing his bad behavior?
And what about the idea of forgiveness? I was not a victim, so it’s not my place to tell others how they should feel. But divisiveness and everlasting castigation isn’t going to help us learn to respect each other. I’m puzzled and caught in a moral dilemma. Maybe I need to read the poems again in the light of this development. We don’t live in a New Critics’ world where nothing matters but what’s on the page. Neither do we live in a world where biography alone determines the value of creative writing.
One of my life-long props is wobbling. Poetry is not always beauty and beauty is rarely truth, no matter what Keats would have us believe.
Friday afternoon a friend and I arrived at Silver Star, a guest house in Crestone, Colorado, at 8000 feet, the whole San Luis Valley spread out before us. We were in town for the first-ever Crestone Poetry Fest and the event was both a fest and a feast. Our stay at Silver Star was warm and welcoming, hosted by Carolyn Brown. The rest of the excitement was in the village, mostly at the Crestone Charter School, a most creative venue. I couldn’t count the participants–they moved too fast–but I would guess a hundred or so moved through the workshops and readings.
High-school students ran the snack and coffee bar; we met in classrooms and in the all-purpose gym. We heard an amazingly varied array of speakers and readers. People sang, danced, read and recited. Poets sold books and readers bought books. Some of us traded books. It was a full-emersion experience arranged and hosted by Peter Anderson and his troop of magicians who rowed that poetry boat home.
Obviously, I’m not telling you this to get you there. Too late for that. (Although I’d bet good money it happens again next year.) No, I want to ease your fears that poetry doesn’t matter. The audience–which was also the cast of characters–included all colors, all backgrounds, all ages. There was even a dog there, wrapped in a blanket, held on the pup’s parents’ laps. So when you fear that poetry is dead in America, take a deep breath and think Crestone. Leaving there on Sunday was reentry into a more common atmosphere after the rarified space of poems, poems, poems.
After much thought, I’m changing my ways. I’ve deactivated Twitter and LinkedIn, tried to get rid of my personal Face Book page (not a simple task, but I’ll keep trying), all in the interest of using my time better. I’ll leave my Karen Douglass Author page intact, as it might be useful to those who see my blogs through that lens. I mean to spend less time staring at a screen that tries too hard to sell me things or services I don’t want, that reTweets obnoxious political rants, fills my hours with cute puppies or cats, when I have in residence a gorgeous cat and three fine canines. Much better to watch their antics than flat screen analogs. Maybe I’ll unhook the dominos and solitaire apps from my phone.
Instead of enduring a barrage of useless information, I plan to spend more time here, blogging, something that I enjoy and that just might be of use to someone else. I returned library books this morning through the drive-up, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to check out more books. I have, oh, more than a hundred books here at home. I think I’ll reread them from Allende to Zagagewski. These books live here because they please me. I’ll start with my top-twenty shelf.
I hope to be more active on Goodreads, where, again, I might connect with people in a useful way. I’ll be more attentive to Colorado Independent and the News Poetry there. The poetry of witness has been an interest, almost a compulsion, for me for at least a decade, since I took part in a workshop with Allison Hedge-Coke at Naropa University in which Allison asked us to put our art in service to an issue. And do we have issues! Better to attend to them than to admire the shoes or widgets or casual conversations all too present online. Most of all, I will pay much more attention to poetry. I’ve spent years grappling with the art and use of it, so why not get, finally, all in?
There, I’ve said it, so now I’m committed to a better use of my time. We cannot know how much time we each have. No point in wasting any of it.
I often complain that my “mind is like a sieve” given the limitations of an overstuffed memory. Because I read a dozen or so books a month, I cannot recall the juiciest parts of most. Sometimes I scribble into my journal what strikes me as worth saving. But my journals, once full, go into a box in the closet and might not be seen again until the box overflows and I pitch the whole mess into the recycling bin.
And there go the nuggets of wisdom or grace that I took the time to write down. There is a better way. According to Wikipedia, the English philosopher John Locke wrote in 1706 a book titled A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, “in which techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, speeches were formulated. Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such key topics as love, politics, or religion. Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”
I’ve not read Locke’s advice, but I’ve known since my first graduate school course that I need a system to preserve the wonders collected in my sieve-like mind. Hence, the turquoise journal reserved for the best of the best quotes and details worth the ink to copy them. I have another book that I call my reading log, in which I note the author, title and shiny little bits of language or ideas that I would otherwise forget. I think I’ll give Locke a look and take notes about his note taking. An addition to my endless search for the gold that is good writing.
February is Black History Month and this book of poetry is the best kind of history, first-person history, family history straight from the family. The book even begins with a family tree.
Don’t let the YA library sort deter you. The book is about a child but not by or only for a child. I read it straight through and I will likely read it again. There are scenes of the equality marches that Woodson witnessed, she tells us about being followed in the stores, lest she steal, which she never did. But far more often we are privileged to see up close a family raise four children who are loved, well cared for, well spoken and talented. As a writer, my favorite poems here is “composition notebook” in which the child Jacqueline cannot yet write but is in love with a blank book: “For days and days, I could only sniff the pages, / hold the notebook close … // Nothing in the world like this– / a bright white page with / pale blue lines. …” How could this child not grow up to be a winner of the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Award?
Wouldn’t it be fine if all children’s dreams came true?
I can’t sing, have no talent for music, play no instrument but the radio. Now, however, more than ever, my one creative skill comforts me and perhaps my readers and listeners. If you poke around on line, you’ll see that I am one of the poets who contribute to Colorado Independent‘s “News Poetry” project. Colorado Independent Our readers are, probably, like us. They care about equality, fair and adequate housing, well-funded education, development of renewable energy, environmental awareness and honest government. Our readers are those who sign petitions, call legislators, donate to food banks, support safety and sanctuary for ICE victims.
So, when I write a poem in support of them, pardon my cliché, I know that I am preaching to the choir. And here’s the thing: the choir members who sing for me need to know that I hear them; sotto voce, I hum along. My belief in their efforts helps to keep the choir singing.
The music that is activism must go on. So I’ll go on writing poems of witness, of protest, of awareness, gifts to those whose voices are heard by a public that doesn’t read poetry, poor souls. No, I cannot sing but I can write the words. That’s how the truth gets in. “Imagine” that. (RIP John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie, et al.)