Beginners/Middlers/Enders

This week, emptying the box in which I had stashed a year’s worth of journals,  I found that all too many had blank pages at the back because I rushed to start a new one before I finished the old. I love a new journal, a new pen, a new car. (Though in truth I have kept a few cars for a decade, but that’s finance riding herd on my impulses.)

My writing plans sprout like radishes. I start stories, poems, essays, reading lists, but too soon, I fade. I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. My tendency to quit before I’m done might have started in childhood. (Always fair game, eh?) From the age of six months I was moved from state to state, house to house, a chess pawn in adult hands, not much staying put. Then as a military wife, I fell under the spell of the DOD. As a nurse I was so employable that I changed jobs easily, never got the gold pin for longevity.

As a writer, this impulse to move on like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party means that I draft a story, maybe revise it a time or two while it’s new and full of exciting potential, but then I’m apt to stuff it into a file and not finish it. I wrote my novel Providence in scenes, small chunks that I then had to wrestle into a more or less logical structure. That challenged me.

Poetry comes more easily, the bright-light beginnings seduce me and, given the brevity of my poems, I usually finish them. If one can ever call a poem finished. I admit that my revisions folder gets cobwebby and the resident house spider is no help. As I type, I realize that I’m in the middle of this little essay and I can’t see the exit sign. But you get the idea. Identify your patterns and adjust to taste.

To Pee on the Tree or Not to Pee?

When I walk Duncan the Dog, he reads tree bark the way I read books. He’s not interested in the tree itself, only the messages left by his canine tribe. I don’t know what he learns from his sniffing, maybe something like “Oh, that old lab was here today and that little Pomeranian is pregnant. Wow!” His own signature is writ in urine.

Critiquing poetry is much the same, though we write in ink and sweat, not pee. We don’t judge the poet, only the work. We neither defend nor prosecute the “tree.” It’s what’s on the bark that matters.

Today the critique group to which I belong, Gamuts, will share a potluck lunch and review a poetry manuscript. It works this way: the poet du jour has assembled her manuscript to the best of her ability. She has included a title page, a table of contents and the full text of each poem on a separate page. She has numbered the pages. She will have handed out print copies of the manuscript weeks ago. The rest of us will have read the work at least twice and written comments on the pages.

First we talk about the collection as a whole: the themes, style, structure of the book. We pretend the writer is not at the table, sipping her wine and crunching her salad. She’s eating and she’s listening and taking notes. After discussing the larger elements, we work through the poems one at a time, looking for fresh, precise language, rhythm, structure within the poem. What I like someone else mourns. We look for leaners–poems too weak to stand alone outside this manuscript. We name the keepers and the cuts, the pets and the mutts. We remain civil and somewhat objective. Objectivity challenges us because we often know the backstory of a piece and may not be alert to what a stranger needs to get the news.

Most of all we don’t lift a leg to offend the poet because each of us at some point will be the tree.

Hunting Hidden Treasure

Jonathan Waldman has written a prize-winning book called Rust: The Longest War. Waldman is a journalist and true to his profession he did plenty of first hand research about the problems of corrosion. Odd, you say, who cares, you say? We all should care. Waldman found that we almost lost the Statue of Liberty to corrosion. He went to “can school” in Boulder to learn about the joys and sorrows of canned products. He went to Alaska to hang out with the workers who inspect and maintain the oil pipeline. And when he spoke to writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Waldman dissed our beloved Friday 500 acronym BICHOK–“butt in chair, hands on keyboard.”

His advice was to get off your duff and go look, really look, at the world beyond your desk. It’s a version of the mythic hero’s journey: the hero leaves home alone, risks his or her own safety, and brings back treasure for the community. I think Waldman’s right, but so is BICHOK. As a writer, I need to do both, balance the investigation of the world with the time spent making marks on screen or paper.

So, today I’ll spend hours and hours in the company of other poets, digging with my pen for treasures to bring back to fellow writers. And I’ll try hard to keep a wide focus. Who are these people I’ll be with? What are their quirks and talents? What space will we occupy? What might I witness en route? We don’t have to go to can school or to Alaska or to NYC to find treasure. It’s everywhere if we take the time to look. So, BICHOK later, treasure hunt now.

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.

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.

Attendez Vous!

Please, if you go to a poetry reading, pay attention to the poets. This is not difficult when the readers are well known and there is no open mic. However, the open mic can challenge your parents’ kindest intentions to teach you manners. I am put off and put out by self-centered attendees who blatantly show no interest in the work of others. They shuffle their own papers, flip through their books, go get latte/wine/beer or use the restroom while someone else is speaking. You know who you are. You want your three to five minutes and will stretch it if you don’t get the hook. I understand that some of the people in the audience are not poets, and I can almost forgive their rudeness, but poets should respect other poets. It’s enough pain that the rest of the world ignores us.

Fate gives you advance notice when you are going to a reading, so you can find twenty minutes in your exciting life to mark selections in your book or paper clip your two longish/three short poems together before you take your seat. Don’t make long introductions. We do not go to hear a lecture, a sermon or a memoir. Don’t take an axe to a gun fight. (My great-great grandfather did that and the result was unpleasant.)

If you must fidget while others speak, get back on your meds, carry worry beads, or doodle silently in a small notebook. Look interested even if you ache with disdain for the rest of the readers. Pretend that the one at the mic is Will Shakespeare back from the dead to entertain you. Fake it till it’s your turn, and for Pete’s sake don’t walk out before the readings end, unless A. Hitler strides to the mic and shouts racial or ethnic slurs. Even then you might keep your butt in the chair and hear something you’ve never heard before–a voice not your own.