Life Gets Busy, You Know?

I try to keep a schedule for the blog posts but some weeks it just doesn’t fit comfortably. And comfort becomes important as I juggle two writing projects. (Not to mention planning a launch party for the third novel.) One of the current projects is genealogy. It’s been years in the making, documenting the lives of my great grandparents, researching the times and places in which they lived, the ways in which they traveled. Not that it’s all fact. That’s not possible. I have to make it clear in the text where I draw my own conclusions. Otherwise, I can and will note my research sources, admit my suppositions, do my honest best to memorialize these people whom I’ve never met.

The other work in project is fiction and it grows daily. I hadn’t planned it, am surprised that all these words demand my attention. Or maybe it’s the characters who want me to recognize them, let them live on the page. Problem is, I don’t know where we’re going or where they’ve been. Fictional characters don’t leave a paper trail. And because I don’t plot early on in fiction, the characters do what they want. In less than 10,000 words so far, I have three strong characters and another two about to emerge. If the plot goes where I think it might, there will be others. It’s out of my hands despite my fingers on the keys.

In both of these projects, rewards spring up when I least expect them. A character whom I imagined as passive sticks out her hand, welcomes in a stranger, takes charge of the scene. Instead of a petite white woman, she’s a stately black woman. Who knew? Ancestors rarely show their faces but I find their lives in census records, city directories, immigration lists. Truth and fiction are not so different this week. It’s hard work keeping up with all these people, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Polemic or Political?

For decades, no, for millennia, critics have debated the uses of poetry. Plato, remember him? He would have banned poets from his ideal republic. Trouble makers, dreamers, realists instead of idealists. All true. Then a while later along came the US Constitution and the idea of free speech. Wahoo! Poets could make as much trouble as they dared. They could write about whatever crossed their weird minds. This was a good idea even though it still broke hearts and rules in other, less open countries. No more hiding poems in the USA, no more need to memorize what could not be published. Remember Akhmatova having friends memorize her poems until it was again safe to print them them? My good fortune not to live under such pressure.

Poetry has long been a means to voice opposition to social injustice, pure meanness and discrimination. It certainly worked for W.B. Yeats in Ireland. When the Occupy Wall Street happened, I jumped right in to contribute poems, to add my voice to a movement that seemed likely to make a difference. I’m not sure that it worked, but it was better than sitting in frustrated silence. Now, again, I’ve answered the call for poems that connect craft and imagery to public issues, ideas and situations beyond  the lyric born from our private, individual lives.

It’s not that I no longer write the personal lyric, the narrative of experience, the observation of surroundings that amaze and instruct me. But at the invitation of the editor of The Colorado Independent, Susan Greene, I’m writing and publishing News Poetry. And it feels right to again respond to current events. The process involves two layers of editing, one being the poetry editor, Jackie St Joan, and the other being Susan, who makes the final decision to publish or not. She wants short, free verse, accessible poems. News Poetry is not just for English majors.

Writing about the news is a challenge. Not everyone approves. Poets rightly fear the danger of the polemic, the sermon, the demand that the reader share the writer’s belief, attitude or political persuasion. But the challenge to say something pertinent and still allow room for other attitudes is a healthy dare. I like it.

Please, READ FOR EQUALITY

Denver Talks is a partnership between Lighthouse Writers Workshop, the NEA’s Big Read, and the City & County of Denver. The upcoming program features poet Claudia Rankine and Mayor Michael B. Hancock in conversation on November 15. Rankine’s book is Citizen: An American Lyric.

Please, Read for Equality

I’ve said it before but now more than ever, this is important. We all need to read books written by people who don’t look like us. Here are three that I’m reading this week and each one is valuable, readable and satisfying.

Alexie, Sherman. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a Memoir.  Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Lene Indian, writes with his usual wit and depth about his childhood through the lens of his complex relationship with his mother.

Qin Xiaoyu, ed. Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry, translated by Eleanor Goodman. Jared Smith, Director at The New York Quarterly Foundation, writes in his back-cover blurb: “These poems are a wake-up call for poets, scholars, and humanitarians everywhere.” He’s right.

Smith, Tracy K. Duende, Poems. Smith’s book won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is our current U.S. Poet Laureate.

Let your library and bookstore know that you value books that enlarge your world, and I welcome your additions to this list. If you send recommendations via the comment option here, I’ll add your ideas next week. If you add your voice to mine, we will have an impact on the racial tensions in the USA and the world.

Read for equality.

Imperfect Gifts

One of my favorite books is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. It’s about passing along the gifts of creativity–writing, visual art, music, etc. It came up again this past week with a group of writers. But what if the gifts I give are less than perfect, not even close? After all, would I give someone a bald tire, a torn shirt, half a jar of peanut butter? I wouldn’t give stale bread to a starving child.

And what constitutes a real gift, as opposed to a gift to my own ego? “Look at the wonderful poem/book/photograph I’ve made.” Gifts are meant to signal generosity, not grandiosity. I remember a segment of the TV show Friends, in which Phoebe tried to give a gift that did not in any way serve her. She found that it was impossible, because she felt good about giving, thus the gift was never pure.

Gifts from writers are never pure either. The writing is never perfect and the writer’s pleasure in sharing affects the giving. But we still must move the work on. It’s a bit like raising a child and sending that kid out in the hope that he or she will be a friend to someone, a loving spouse, a hard worker. Poems, essays, and stories are our offspring, and sending them out is an act of faith, however flickering that faith may be. We cannot give without receiving, and maybe that’s the best gift of all.

The Promise of Connection

You know my four words? The ones I use to describe the writing process? Commit, Discover, Create, Connect–those words? This week has been rich with the fourth word. I’ve connected with more writers and readers than I can count without boring you. And this morning I’m off to a workshop with Columbine Poets in Denver that will add to the list and then to a reading at Book Bar this evening. I just counted up my connections and it seems that I meet other writers at least twenty times in any given month. There are poets, memoirists, technical writers, science writers, novelists, beginners and professionals. There’s a pheromone that draws writers together.

Connection is in the air. Sitting with my cli-fi writing partner yesterday it turned out that the five women sitting along the back wall of the Brewing Market at Basemar in Boulder were connected by twin threads of science and writing: we two writers of climate fiction, an environmentalist, a science professor and a middle school teacher who has her students write regularly. Within minutes ideas were flying and contact info was shared. How did it happen that we five were in the right place at the same place at the same time? Fate, good luck, predestination? Any or all of these.

If you carry the image of writers as lonely depressives in cold garrets, rethink it. G0 out into the wider world, let your writing show, flash that notebook, show off your laptop, keep business cards handy. Strike up conversations. You’ll honor your commitment to BE a writer, even in public.

READ FOR EQUALITY

Check out The Colorado Independent

To Review or Not to Review?

“A book report is an essay discussing the contents of a book, written as part of a class assignment issued to students in schools, particularly in the United States at the elementary school level.” So says Google. I dreaded that forced march through long prose to prove that I had read the whole book. I coughed up the plot, the conflicts and the characters. Stated the theme of the book. Convinced my classmates and the adult with the red pen why I liked or disliked the book. Seemed to me there were only two choices, neither one comfortable. What did I learn from these assignments? I learned to hate book reports, and some kids learned to hate books.

Therein lies my angst over writing book reviews, the grown-up version of a book report, minus the spoilers. Yesterday I chatted with an editor seeking a review for a poetry book he has in hand. I once knew the poet well. What if I don’t like the work? What if I cannot gush and praise and send readers rushing to their bookseller for it? What if I feel merely tepid about it?

Must I warn a vulnerable public to keep away from dull, clumsy books? With so much new poetry, fiction, and memoir to choose from–probably half a million books published annually just in the US–I can do readers a favor if I warn them about the flaccid, florid, horrid books that usurp valuable shelf space in libraries and bookstores. Or I could wax wise and inflate my ego by elevating my taste to the measure of all things literary. Well, my grandma told me that if I couldn’t say something nice to shut up. Granny was sometimes right, so I deflected yesterday’s editor toward a new book of poems that I am excited about, that I can honestly recommend and not sound like a snob, a paid hack, or a crank.

Word for the Day Is Wall

The Great Wall of China, built with slave power about the third century BC was ineffective against invaders. Now it’s a tourist site. The Biblical Old Testament tells us about the Battle of Jericho: “And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.” Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 BC to protect the northern boundary of Roman Britain. It did not keep out the enemy. In 1961 East Germany built a wall of wire and concrete. It came down in 1989. My dictionary defines a wall as “a rampart built for defensive purposes,” meant to enclose, to divide, to confine, to block off.

Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall” begins, “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall …” I’m with him. But of course, I live within walls, feel safe and sheltered by the sturdy walls of my home. But these walls are pierced with doors and windows that can provide access, welcome, or escape, as needed. Defensive walls, historically, have not guaranteed safety from intruders. They are costly failures. They are not permeable and can imprison those on the inside. Like Frost, something in me doesn’t like such a wall.