In Praise of Index Cards

By now you know that I read a lot. But you probably don’t know how I struggle to retain some sense of what I’ve read. Sometimes I comment in my daily journal, sometimes add pages to a notebook dedicated to writing advice, sometimes I make a quasi library card and add it to my index file by topic. None of these are perfect.

A few weeks ago I started a reader’s diary, full of good intention and common questions: Did I finish it? Would I read another book by the same author? Would I recommend it to someone? Well, you know the cliche about hell and good intentions. Definitely not a path I recommend.

The first graduate course I had, decades ago, was library research, and I should have invested in an office supply store, I used so many index cards. Now I’ve reverted to 3×5 cards, but with a twist. Not only do I cite the author, title, year of publication, but now I add a comment about the plot line, the characters, the style or the pacing, whatever seems useful to have handy in the future.

As I gleaned from the failed diary, a few of the books noted there were damned with DNF–Did Not Finish. That’s good information for me to keep. And now I can briefly say what makes me slam the book shut, stuff it into the library return bag early or return it to Libby (a free digital library app accessed through my library card).

Index cards are cheap, non-threatening, and easily sorted. Those who are addicted to electronic screens can create the same sort of catalogue, but I take comfort in the physical presence of paper. I need not sweat a power outage or a cranky hard drive.

This record keeping will not change my life, but I like to know that if I want to recall a particular book, all I need is a card from the box. Sometimes simplicity is best. I recall seeing a photo of a successful novelist’s office with a dozen or more boxes filled with index cards. Beautiful, a thing to aspire to. And when I die, easy for my family to dump into the recycle bin.

Poets Behaving Badly–or Not

At a recent open mic, the audience was patient and attentive. Many of the poems were fine and presented with polish and forethought. But…as with so much of life, sometimes there’s a better way.

  1. Know something about poetry; it’s not a sermon, a diatribe, or an ego trip. If you write it, you should read it, often and with great variety. It’s even nice to include a poem by someone other than yourself.
  2. We give poetry a bad rap if we bore people or offend them. Accept that your audience is mixed and might not admire a rant full of cliché and loose talk.
  3. Reading from a small, unstable device like a phone, is asking for annoying glitches. Use a larger screen or print the poems. Read from a book only if you can handle it and the mic.
  4. Get friendly with the mic and the readers’ light. If people can’t hear you or you cannot see the work in front of you, why bother?
  5. Prepare. You probably didn’t stumble across the event five minutes before it started. If you read from a book, mark the pages with sticky notes or make a list so you don’t take up precious time shuffling pages. If you print individual poems, use a font that’s easy to read.
  6. Select pieces ahead of time and know how long it takes to read them at a slightly slower pace than you would use in conversation. Most open mics limit your time. Respect that. In fact, it’s better to leave ’em hungry rather than tired, bored, and ready to hit the bar or the bathroom.
  7. Don’t announce a form. The audience can hear it if you’ve made it work. And if you haven’t, why draw attention to your experiment?
  8. AND DO NOT GO TO THE MIC STONED, DRUNK, OR OTHERWISE ANNOYING TO THE AUDIENCE AND TO THE OTHER READERS WHO VALUE THIS OPPORTUNITY.

If people give you their time and attention, deliver the best you have. Poets need listeners. Respect the art form and the audience.

#OpenMic #PublicReadings

Paz Effect

Reading Octavio Paz’s poems challenges me. He goes deep and wide, mythic and intense. His work silences and moves me, but if I keep him close I will perhaps learn to write with courage. His female figures are stunning, earthy and unabashedly eternal. As I read though, I cannot find my own words. I close the book. I put the phone on the charger, wrap a holiday gift, peel the price tag from a new notebook, small things to distract me. Again he  dares me to write bigger, deeper.

Instead I go out for coffee, chat with friends. I’m intimidated by his huge body of work. I’ve used up too much time and ink and achieved little. Then I recall a line from the Tao te Ching: “Do your work, then step back.” I splatter enthusiasm onto the page, decide that I am a link, not a destination. I’ve tripped over awe and envy, and now I  acknowledge a little sourness on my tongue. Then again I feel comforted having the work of a master to teach me. Promise to try, as Frost said, to get a few poems to stick, and know that to do so, I must write them. And finish the novel that too often I call the damned novel, because it too makes me aware of the limits to my skill. I dare not call it talent. I struggle with this knot, pick up one thread only to lose another, roll around like the dog scratching its back on the rug.

There’s benefit in admitting one’s ambition toward perfection, an impossible goal, but the carrot that pulls me forward. I’m not sorry about this turmoil. I’m better for having put it on the page and finding the energy in it. Tension holds me up like the tendons in my joints, steady and fluid. I feel better now. #OctavioPaz #poetry

Courage Called For

So many things can stop me from writing–a wonky keyboard, a challenging crossword puzzle, a sleepless night. But these are excuses. What too often stops me is inertia. And that comes from fear, not screams-in-the-dark fear, not attack by rhinos, not that fear. My fear is not getting it right. But getting it right is not why I write every morning. No one sees that kind of writing, so what’s to worry about? I long ago accepted the need to practice, just as musicians, dancers, athletes do. So I’m faithful to my practice in morning pages.

But those of you who check in here know that I’ve been slacking about blogging. That’s because I want to do it well or not at all. Well, well is a relative term. I have yet to have people throw stones at me because my blog is not perfect, not even excellent. So here I am, admitting my need for approval to myself and to the whole world, or at least the tiny part of it that reads my blog.

Commitment to writing and sending it out into the world is a renewal. I will do better, or at least more often. And to help me do that, my Friday writing partner, Anita, and I will talk every Friday morning even after she moves away from Colorado (which will happen soon). What’s more, we will set goals for the week and hold each other accountable. And if we don’t meet the goal, explain, please, why not. Dire circumstances may be legit, but maybe not.

If you don’t have a pal like Anita, find one. Go to your local coffee shop and strike up a conversation. Book stores, libraries, open mics–all rich in potential. And keep the pen moving or BICHOK (Butt in chair, hands on keys.)

#KVDbooks

Lost in Bookland

It’s been a long time since I spent time here. So where have I been? Oh, mostly in my chair, chocolate nearby, and a book in my hands. Just what I need with the onset of winter–technically a ways off, but last week we had a doozy on the Front Range of Colorado–cold, snowy, good reading weather. Here’s what I have to confess:

Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human, and her Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, both poetry. Ms. Harjo is our current Poet Laureate of the United States, and our first Native American appointee. If you have one of those magical speakers, try telling it to play Joy Hargo. I did and got two hours of her poetry and music. She’s an accomplished musician, plays the saxophone.

The Western Woman’s Reader, edited by Lillian Schlissel and Catherine Lavender. This one I stumbled on at a thrift store and it’s a valuable find. The blurb: “Explore 300 years of the American West with the women who have shaped its history.”

Richard Blanco’s poems, City of a Hundred Fires. Even if you don’t lean toward poetry (although you should), these will convert you. Who knew a civil engineer could write poetry? Well, this one can.

Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes, a tour guide to Mexico that makes me squirm, given our fraught relationship with our neighbors. This book is on my tablet, thanks to an app called Libby, which allows me to borrow digital/audio books with my library card. A marvelous thing while I was traveling and great for snow days when I’m snuggled in at home.

Now, excuse me, but I’ve just started Cynthia Ozick’s Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, & Other Literary Essays, and I really must get back to it.

#EcoInfo

How Do I Do? Very well, thanks.

Natalie Goldberg says to free write until you get past monkey mind and she’s right. Then again, for decades she’s been right about writing. So, thanks to her I’ve altered my morning writing sessions. For years I’ve clung to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and filled three pages, much of which was truly monkey mind, full of to-do lists or rambling self-castigation about my insipid journal. Then, for a short while I tried to model my morning writing after Eric Maisel’s Deep Writing, attempting to “clear my mind” and write “deeply” about the first object in my line of sight. That approach ended when I wrote deeply about my slippers or my coffee table.

Recently I’ve been adhering to Nat’s advice in The True Secret of Writing. (I feel free to refer to her by her nickname, having once met her briefly at a book fair.) More often now, I’m having fun, not as quick to judge, believing most days, that if I don’t censor and don’t quit at the bottom of page three, something interesting and fresh will pop up, sort of whack-a-molish. But lately I don’t smack the pop-up, keep the pen moving, excited to see where the words lead. And I’m through, I think, demanding that every page I fill must be productive.

For all my years of preaching process and practice over product and publication, I see now that I often didn’t take my own advice. Now I have a purse-sized notebook full of Nat’s advice–like “Don’t waste this one precious life.” Writing is again discovery, getting beyond my own opinions and, you know, it’s fun. And the more fun I have, the less I ration time and paper.

Read/Recite

As part of an active community of poets, I read and hear all sorts of poetry at open mics and public readings, where poets read their work with varying results. Some read from a book, a reassuring thing, as a published book suggests that the work that has been vetted, edited, worked on diligently. Sometimes the reader’s voice enhances work that I might read on my own. I recall having read a book of poems that did not impress me, but when I subsequently heard the poet read, aha! There was plenty there after all. Not all readers have that skill. Some mumble, some shout, some stumble, some drone on far too long. Please, don’t commit any of these venial sins.

Some read from an electronic device, often a phone. That makes me uneasy. Phones are small, poems not so much. And wonderful as technology is, things do freeze on the screen, the connection goes wonky, the evil thing runs out of juice midway through a poem. So, I don’t trust that method. I’ve yet to have a poem disappear from a printed page. (Yes, I’ve lost pages but that’s an issue for another time.)

Occasionally, a poet recites fully fed, sumptuous work. Right out of the mouth, no papers or screens or books with said poet’s work on them. My reaction? Queasy, what if he/she forgets an important line or word? And I’ve seen a speaker pause to retrieve the memorized work. Said speaker is, according to a successful reciter, reading from an invisible teleprompter. The giveaway is the loss of eye contact with the audience and a brief glance to one side. And there’s the rub. Losing even a nanosecond of connection with the audience breaks the contract, the one where the poet promises to deliver work that flows effortlessly. The effort should be behind us, left on the  desktop, or it should be.

So, there’s no one right way, except one that works–delivers the poem seamlessly, with verve and clear diction. Think about it, practice, prepare. Ours is not a profession that earns much money, but it should earn us the respect of those who choose to listen.