“I Search”

When I was teaching writing, I sometimes suggested to students that they do, not a research paper, but an “I Search.” Look online for this term and I now get advice about buying cars. Not what I had in mind. My version involves a deep look at something I’m interested in. One time, for example, I researched the history of printing. I read books and articles, and I visited a printer in Denver who now heads a museum and teaches the fine art of printing.

Lately, I’ve been studying the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Irish, a Nobel Laureate in 1995. I’ve long admired his work and it seemed an omen when I found in a thrift shop a fat book, Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Their in-depth conversations range from Heaney’s early years in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, a hard era in which to be Catholic in that bloody land. Heaney not only survived, but as an outstanding student, won scholarships and graduated with honors from Queens University College Dublin. The rest, as the saying goes, is history, or should I say his-story.

Partly his enormous talent and depth of knowledge about literature and partly sharing a mostly Irish heritage has kept me reading. I’m  half way through the interviews, deep into a book of his essays about poetry, and a study by Helen Vendler, a noted literary critic. I’m keeping a notebook of whatever strikes me as useful. I’m reading again his poems.

If you look at the photo above, you’ll see what faces me on my coffee table. What you cannot see is the ink and pencil marks in the books that I own, nor the impact of his talent on my own writing. He is a poet of place and of the body. His ear is well tuned and helps me to hear the rhythms of the language.

But I remind myself that despite his huge talent, he’s male, through no fault of his own, and his artistic influences were male. So, the next round of deep study will, I think, take me back to Carolyn Forsché. Her newest collection, In the Lateness of the World: Poems, is even now creeping toward me and promises to enrich my understanding of this strange art called poetry.

#RedGoddessPoems #SeamusHeaney #CarolynForsché

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

Chunk Reality

Reading Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, I took her advice and “fell in love” with the first thing I saw when I looked up from the book. Well, shoot, what I saw was my own foot in a black sandal, propped on the corner of the coffee table. Really, Kim? My own foot? Okay, I’ll try. And I glanced at her list of “new words,” another recommendation. Ah, pollex and hallux, meaning thumb and big toe. Okay, I have two big toes. This has to go somewhere.

And it did, other than misspelling pollex, I dove in and came up for air an hour or so later, having landed a good sized poem. Addonizio’s advice isn’t exactly new to me. I’ve long admired “thing” poems that showcase the tangible world and find meaning there. The prompt worked because it brought me close to one thing and its parts. The process is called chunking.

I am relearning this. The world is way to big for my small brain and worried heart. Otherwise, going forward I see so many issues to track that I shut down, concentrate on jigsaw puzzles or crosswords. But shutting down is not a wise option. So I am learning to chunk the worry, pick one issue and pay attention, see if I can help relieve my angst and make a difference, however small, in the chaos that is civilization.

Writing witness poems and stories in our age of political fragmentation, I cannot continue to practice scatter-shot activism. For me, the key issue is climate change. True, it has a thousand moving parts, but it supersedes so much else. If I can’t breathe, I can’t vote. If I don’t vote . . . well, that’s just not an option. Writers can, must, respond to the world as it is. Else what good are we?

#KimAddonizio #ThingPoems

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?

Contagious Poetry

Binge reading Edward Hirsch’s books about poetry, in How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, I found the origin of his introduction to poetry. As a boy he was, on a rainy day, looking for something to read and found in one of his grandfather’s books a poem, handwritten and unattributed. Seems his granddad habitually copied poems that he liked into the blank pages of his books. Edward, at eight years old, was captivated by the evocative rhythms of the poem and caught a severe case of poetry. The poem—Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound.” An apt title.

I was, by comparison, late to the party. As a teenager, I clipped John Lennon’s poems from a magazine and taped them to the wall in my dorm room. But that was more a part of the Beatle Mania that infected millions of girls our age. Later, much later, in the process of continuing my nursing education, I took an elective course in literature, the source of contagion. And I read Walt Whitman’s “Son of Myself.” OMG! I remember being alone in my living room and wanting to jump up and run around the room, to show someone this amazing poem. I still revere Uncle Walt. Then there was another elective course in creative writing, and then Intro to Lit, and my first attempts to join the tribe of scribblers.

My education did lead to a BS in Health Science, but it was almost derailed by my fascination with literature. I fell so in love with the written word, that I strayed, promiscuously, into a graduate program in English, and taught comp and lit. And, reader, I wrote poems. Way went on to way and I earned an MFA in Poetry.

So here I sit, in a hotel in Denver, one of the 150 or so poets who will devote the next four days to poetry. It’s a chronic condition and I so hope there is no cure.

Getting Serious

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.

Keep the Choir Singing

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.)

Now I’m Annoyed

Some times I’m slow to recognize an insult when I hear one. Not so long ago I was shopping for holiday gifts and the woman in front of me at the register, whom I know casually, asked me if I make much money from my writing. I grinned and answered her. I answered her! Robotic courtesy. Well, damn, would you ask anyone else whom you know casually what they earn at whatever they do? Do you question the clerk at the register or the server in the diner, the barista? How about the FedEx or UPS driver? Of course not, it’s no one’s business what they make. It did not occur to me at the time to be offended, but I should have been. My income is no one’s business but mine, my banks, and my creditors.

This time of the year I get cranky about money because of the constant pressure to buy things, the sale junk that clogs my email, Face Book, Twitter, mailbox. No, I don’t resent giving gifts to people I love, taking the time to discover what will please them, anticipating their joy with just the right present. But I’m so numbed by the endless ads for things I don’t want to buy that I didn’t even feel that rude question when it came at me like an arrow right in the wallet.

Writing is my work; I expect to be honored as an honest worker, but I don’t expect people to pry and judge my worth by the numbers. Some of the best writers we have ever known earned little, some nothing; some of the worst have made millions. The gauge of good writing in not monetary; it’s the freshness and precision of language and imagery, the surprise in the story or the depth of the poem; it’s the humor or the passion or the grief. An insight. It’s the making something new out of our tiny alphabet, our only raw material. It’s a gift beyond price and money is not the reason for the season. Nor is it the reason I write.

Chasing Rainbows

Yesterday on my way home from dinner with friends in W. Kennebunk, I was awed by a double rainbow, one of which was the biggest, brightest I’ve ever seen. So entranced by keeping it in sight, I made my way to Rte 95, also known as the Maine Turnpike, paid my dollar and realized that, horrors, I had gone through the south-bound toll booth, when I needed to drive north. By the time I reached the next exit where I could turn around, the rainbows were gone and I had to take a stretch of Route One in order to get back on the north-bound highway.

Why am I telling you this? Because chasing rainbows is a bit like chasing my imagination. I had a draft for today’s blog, but I worried that its truth would sting people I love. Writers are truth tellers, right? Rock hard truth tellers. But what if the truth is like throwing rocks at people who don’t deserve such an attack? So I have let that true essay fade. I got back on the right road and it feels so much better than trying to wow the world with clever words.

One of my early readers, a fine writer and teacher named Merrell Knighten, had no problem challenging me about my writing: “It’s clever but is it good?” Good means taking full responsibility for the aftermath of publishing something as ephemeral as a blog. Be careful where you travel, you will want to go home again and not find the door locked.