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.

Poem a Day Project

Regular readers know that I’m in training for a week-long poetry workshop that starts a week from tomorrow. As I have said often, writers need to practice, so I’m taking my own advice and attempting a poem a day. I know my own process–journal until some image/phrase/discovery flows onto the page. Write and write with the associations in mind, be they auditory or visual or some memory that gets triggered. Here’s what I wrote yesterday:


Stories handed round like

whoopie pies, like wild

Maine blueberries–the one about a drunk

whom Gram secretly let sleep

on the porch, or the house fire

and the rescued kittens,

a child born with a broken clavicle.

Surprise twins, one tender, one

tough. Maggots on the turkey

left three days in the oven,

how a snowball led to marriage.

Stories for dessert–

peaches, apples, grapes.

Sorry about the spacing but WordPress insists that each return be followed by extra space. I’m sure some html thingy would fix this but it’s not worth the time to figure it out, and I still have a poem to make for today. As yet, no prompt or imagery to get me started. But it will come. As you’ve heard before, “Notice what you notice.” Then write, write, write, and follows every discovery to its deepest level.

Thanks to the aunts and uncles who over the years have provided me with these stories. This poem may not be great, but it’s better than a felony conviction. More next week. Be well, be happy, be safe, be generous and free.

Noises in the Attic

I am house sitting in Maine in a 200-year-old home. Early yesterday morning I heard a soft scratching in the dining room ceiling. Probably a mouse. I smack the wall near the spot and the noise stops. Then I hear a rhythmic rasping while I’m on the living room sofa reading Jane Smiley’s Duplicate Keys, a murder mystery about home intruders. Scared? Nah, it’s that house mouse but now it’s a bit louder and more insistent, almost frantic. I put down my book and go outside, wondering if something at least as big as a robin is trying to nest in the eaves. I don’t know how much noise a bird might make when it’s homesteading.

The house has been resided with clapboard-like cement composite, so whatever this critter is can’t damage it, but, hey, I’m a writer. I’m curious. I stumble around on the steep front lawn and find nothing bigger than a yellow butterfly. Back in the front room, the noise continues, increasingly louder and more insistent. I can stop it by smacking my hand against the wall, but as soon as I settle back onto the sofa, it resumes.

I call my sister. She has a fairly old house. “Ignore it,” she says. But I don’t want this thing damaging the wiring or digging down through the ceiling. I don’t want it to die and decay up there. “Yes, you do want it to die up there.”

I call a neighbor. “Yeah, old houses get critters, though not usually this late in the spring. Here’s the number for Animal Control, but I doubt there’s anything they can do.” Alright, I’ll be the New England stoic I admire, I tell myself. I let the dog’s out and in again. We all go to sleep. When we get up at 6:00 am, the house is quiet. Either that animal—likely a squirrel or chipmunk—has found a way out or it died and a couple of days from now I’ll regret its demise and open all the windows to air out the place.

This sort of incidental intruder would become, in the hands of a different writer, a ghostly or alien threat, if not to life, at least to sanity. Think of Robert Frost’s narrative poem “Up Attic,” or anything by Stephen King, another New Englander capable of make something out of this almost nothing. Either of them would do more that fret about the stink of a dead rodent in the ceiling.