Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Solstice

It's nearly here again, after a full moon, a lunar eclipse (not visible here though): summer solstice (June 21). It rained in the night as if the earth was preparing herself, cleansing herself. I wait for what will be different. You may think I am a real "nut job," but since I was a young girl, I have been aware of time, tide, changes in weather. I feel them in my body sometimes but more often than not it is a subtle shift in perception, a slight turn in my mood, a click of attitude. In fact, even if I am not focused on the calendar, I am aware of something going on that sends me TO the calendar to check it out. One thing that happens is a need to sleep in another direction, like with my head down at the bottom of the bed, or along the bottom of the bed. Scratching your head now? I understand that. But it is true. I recall many times when, in the middle of the night, I'd feel the need to rearrange my bedroom, moving my bed to "feel better." This activity would often awaken my mother who would come in and ask what I was doing. I'd explain I wanted to sleep in another direction and she'd just shake her head and go back to bed. I'd call this phenomenon Feng Shui if it weren't so changeable. As I understand FS, it is placement of things to allow for a good flow of chi. Well, can chi flow change? Not sure. All I know is that my flow of positive energy, of peace and good dreams, depends in part on which way my head is when I sleep. I tend to "feel something coming" and make a shift in position. I do have a big dream catcher over my bed, but that is a story for another day.

I ought to be doing some research on this, but I am satisfied that I know my own place (last night I shifted to sleeping with my head at the bottom of the bed). I do think writing about it is interesting and fruitful. Here is a poem about one aspect of my "feelings for the natural" from my yet unpublished manuscript, Native Moons, Native Days:



In the Abenaki Manner (Aln├┤baiwi)
We turn to the sea, feel the tide pulling, 
see something coming. We turn our hands in the earth 
to the corn growing greener day by day, 
spending time with her sisters, ready to feed us. 
In our manner, Aln├┤baiwi, it is best to sleep with the head 
in the east, making it easy to see the coming sun.
In our way, we are always facing something, 
seeing what others don’t see coming.


And yes, I am Abenaki. I like to think I am plugged in to the cosmic memory of my culture, to the memories of the ancestors. I don't know if this is so at all. I just know how I FEEL. 

Tonight I will go downtown to Rockland's "summer solstice celebration," wander the street with my neighbors, listening to music, sampling tasty treats, enjoy the demarcation of time. Then I'll go home and sleep with my head facing east.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Fathers

Writing a blog for an "occasion" like Fathers Day seems a little mundane, a bit predictable. There are topics in the writing world that may be more exciting. But having had a great father (deceased in 1993) and being married to a great father (thanks honey for taking on a woman with four girls!) I feel the need to make a few comments.

I just read Li-Young Lee's poem Little Father. It is sweet and a lovely tribute to a deceased father. I also re-read Roethke's My Papa's Waltz and got the same feeling of tender sadness from it as when first I read it. I recall dancing around the dining room on my dad's feet and feeling like a princess. Now that he is gone, I can say that, though he was no saintly father, he was just right. His love for me and more importantly his obvious love for and respect for my mother led me to know I could have that kind of a life as a grown-up. It's funny though that I have written so little about my father (oh yes, there is that first book, but I mean individual poems beyond the poems about his WWII service and consequent PTSD). I have written many poems about my mother, about her death, her obsessive housecleaning, and her temper. But Dad remains somewhat absent in my current poetry. Why?

I think I don't write much about my dad because in some ways he is still here, more than my mother who has only been dead since 2005. I certainly feel him around me in just about every activity I do. I certainly feel him in the car when some "driver" does a nutty on the road or when I am passing parked cars (look for the slightest opening of a door, look for some kid to run out from between the cars) I feel him around me when I do some kind of bone-headed something (Little Girl, did you think that through?) I feel him in church (Mom too there). And then there are the glitter hearts that show up in times of special celebration or in times of heavy stress or sadness. Long story short, I placed red glitter hearts in his niche at Arlington when he was inurned there. He had told me before he died that he would never really leave me. Now these hearts show up all over my life. And when times get tough, I can literally hear his voice in my heart, letting me know that I am tougher than the toughest times.

I do write a fair amount about my husband. He is a great dad to his two kids and my four (we don't really delineate his/mine kids. I say this for clarity). He is a fantastic grandfather. I see in him shreds of what kind of a man my own dad was. I laugh sometimes at how alike they are. Of course they are different too, but I see my dad in my husband and smile. My favorite poems about my husband (or for my husband) are Tea Time and Polaris (in the new book).

Here is Tea Time:


Tea Time
The china teapot brews dust
in your absence, your one cup
turned down on its lips, mine
face up, waiting for your return.
Should you come in this evening
while I’m asleep, turn the cobwebs
out of the pot and brew us some
camomile. Watch the steam rise up
from the spout while you undress
in the low light of the flame. When
the tea’s done, steeping in slow swirls
by our bed, drizzle honey into my cup
and stir me into your mouth.



This poem has a haunting quality, a tenderness. I read it now and can get back to the actual physical feelings that I had when I wrote in back in the early 90s. Funny how poems can do that. It is one of the perks we poets get: revisiting our original impulses.

So what does this blog/musing say about Fathers Day and poetry? As it turns out, it makes me want to write more about my dad. It makes me want to write a poem about how he hitchhiked 12 miles to be able to make it to my fly-ups to Girl Scouts (even though he used to mock that organization). It makes me want to write about him teaching me to read on Sundays by putting me on his lap to "read" the funny papers (we don't call them that now, too bad). So this little FD blog may be an opening for me into a group of new poems. Stay tuned.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thursday

Have I mentioned that Thursday is my favorite day of the week? It is. I've often wondered if there is some kind of cosmic connection to this day because I was born on a Thursday. Oh before you laugh at me too hard, consider how the universe is, all things connected in delicate threads of time and molecules. In many indigenous cultures, the names of days meant something. In my Abenaki culture this is surely so. Even in the anglo culture there are assigned meanings to days and months. We've all heard the rhyme about Monday's Child, etc. (Thursday's Child has far to go apparently). In my writing I have relied heavily upon the culture of my ancestors and this is true of a new collection, Native Moons, Native Days, as yet unpublished. I share with you here one of the days poems: the Thursday poem. Note the meaning at the end. Don't worry over trying to pronounce the Abenaki words... just roll them around in your mouth as they seem to be for you.

Ktsi Wliwini (great thanks)



Cowissewachook

Rough mountain, windfall mountain 
what can you see from there? 
Can you see me here in the meadow, 
worrying in the afternoon heat?
See where the eagle nests, 
pair of eggs delicate and vulnerable,
ready to split — kaamoji! 
So the line continues, flying off the lists 
we made to save them.  Rough mountain,
windfall mountain, what will I find there 
where you cover the sky?
Yawda alokan, Thursday. Full of questions.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Win win

Whew, for the first time since 1972 The Bruins have won the Stanley Cup. This has been an amazing season! I recently wrote a hockey poem dedicated to my poet-friend Lenora. I share it here. Nuf said.


Poetry as hockey, hockey as poetry
for Lenora
The dance we do, to the moan
of the crowds, is poetry,
the scrape of blade, the knocked out
tooth — it’s poetry.
Beads of ice shimmer overhead,
necklace of stones so cold
they seem prehistoric, some age
of ice and glacial mystery
is at play here. Poetry at times
seems iced too and ancient,
beads of words strung above
the page, waiting to come down 
from another time, waiting
for the score to be called, the pages
to be printed.  It’s all the same to me.

Here it is: the sun

I just finished reading Dawn Potter's blog post for today and am in a funk. She comments on the recent murders of an entire family (mother, two kids, and the sick father who killed them all and himself) in Dexter, Maine. It is heartbreaking to say the least. I am inclined to rant on here about the need for women and kids to speak up loudly and long about their abuse, about the need for courts and the whole legal world to stop playing legal games and H-E-L-P them. But I will not. I grieve for this helpless family, now erased from their own lives. I may never erase the image of their family photo from my mind's eye. But I will promise to speak out wherever and whenever I can on behalf of ending domestic violence. Abuse comes in many shades, people. We need to take off our dark glasses and see it.


Now... the sun is out and I will get dressed and move toward the light.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Power of Reading, the Power of Words

One thing to love about "dim days" is the chance to call a bit of a halt to one's busy schedule and tuck into a favorite chair with something to read. People who take advantage of these breaks are doing something wonderful for themselves. For me, reading is not just limited to "breaks" in my activities however. It is an integral part of the day. I learned to read at age 3 watching my father read the "funny papers" to me as I sat on his lap. I'd ask him about specific words and pretty soon I knew them myself, could recognize them on my own. By the time I entered kindergarten, I was reading the funny papers and much more. I could not get enough of what books had to offer. In grammar school, reading was my favorite subject and my library card my prized possession. I took books out of the library weekly, walking there from school and then home. I had my "nose in a book" on car trips, late into the night by flashlight, and would have read at the dinner table if my parents had permitted that. One of my favorite books as a child was Little Women, another Heidi of the Alps. I returned to those time after time. I also loved Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and moved quickly to The Diary of Anne Frank by the time I was 12 or so. I thought that one thing I would surely do as a grown-up would be to have a house full of books. Funny, I did not desire a career as a librarian. Maybe I thought they were so busy at the check-out desk that reading time would not be plentiful enough for my tastes. How funny is that!? What I did desire was to become an English teacher. After a roundabout route, I did that. Now I write. I have also fostered a love of reading in my kids, and the grandkids have followed suit. My 12 year old granddaughter, Alyssa is like me: nose in a book at all possible moments. So wonderful! I know she is having quite a time in this endeavor.

In this age of electronic interactions, there are many new ways to access reading materials. I had a kindle, now have an iPad, and use that frequently for both kindle books and iBooks. One can read a book on a smart phone, on the computer, and audio books have been around for a long while now. Braille books have been around longer than that. The point is that reading has never been more possible. Hoop-dee-doo!

Mostly I prefer the paper and ink kind of reading. I love opening a new book and feeling the rush of discovery. I get very excited to find a new book store when I travel I think I probably get a strange look in my eyes and flush on my cheeks. It is THAT great a feeling. I like to keep stacks of books everywhere (no I am not one of those folks whom they'll find dead in a house of stacked up stuff). But I do like to have books in every room, and in my car. I never go anywhere without a book (or my iPad collection of books). There is no moment of boredom when a book is within reach. I am never bored. I do admit to letting other tasks go a bit in order to read. So sue me. I've never skipped school or church or work to read, but ... I generally store my fiction and nonfiction reading on my iPad, saving my shelf space for poetry and literary criticism and a few specialty books.

I read aloud to my kids and two favorite grandkid memories involve reading. Justin (the oldest of 14) loved to sit on my lap and have me read God Made the Puppies when he was only 2 or 3. He'd follow along, making appropriate sounds and gestures as I read. Pretty soon he was "reading" it from memory. He never missed a word or expression. I recently found a copy of that little book and had it shipped to him as a surprise. Now I must say that this guy is 22 years old and had not read the book in many years, but he immediately realized and mentioned to me that this book I'd sent him had a page and an event missing from the story. Wow. The power of reading to our kids is amazing. The other story involves grandson #3 who was in my morning care as a small child due to his mom's early departure for her teaching job. He'd come to my house in his jammies and I'd do the breakfast, bath thing before taking him to preschool or kindergarten. I read to him from the same book every morning as he took his bath: Muskrat Will Be Swimming (Cheryl Savageau). He'd dive down in the tub as I read the parts where the girl or the muskrat dove into the pond. Christopher (now nearly 19 and a sophomore in college) loved that book, and no matter what else I suggested we read, he always wanted that one. I kept that book safe for him and he stated the other day that he will one day read it to his own kids. I feel very good that when their other grandparents were buying "stuff" for birthdays and Christmas, I was buying books. I am the Book Grandmother. A very good thing to be I'd say. Last fall I became part of a pilot program via one of our local libraries, started by my friend Alice. She formed an intergenerational book group which was comprised of adult women and high school girls. We met monthly throughout the school year and read books that were chosen by all of us, some classics like Fahrenheit 451 and some YA books like Speak. It was so great to have our lively discussions on what we had all read. I treasure the experience and the girls.

But once again I digress.

I keep a little file box on my desk for new words that I discover in my reading. Words. What a treasure trove we have in our language. We have words for whatever moves us, annoys us, excites us, drives us. Our language is complex and interesting. As a poet, I'd say that words are my tools. But it is not enough to simply collect them. I am not saying it is a bad thing to collect words, but that it is only one small part of the fascination for me. What really thrills me is the opportunity that presents itself when I learn a new word. I look at every new word as a possibility for a new piece of writing. Each new word is like a point on a map, leading to a new town or city, to an amusement park of poetry. I found a new word this morning, sent to me in an email by doctor dictionary (great word-a-day site) and promptly filed it away in my box. I know that the word will find its way into my writing (beyond this blog). The word for today is ORISON (n.) meaning a prayer. I've just finished (?) a collection of contemporary psalms (Psalms From the Commons, invocations for every day life) and am excited to have this new word to describe in part what these poems are. I'm already thinking of a new poem that uses the word itself.

I am grateful that I am a poet. By the very nature of this profession, I am immersed in words on a daily basis. I am "allowed" and expected to know words and to work with them to create art. I am fascinated by how simple words used in unexpected ways can alter mood, change perspective, create a new world for my readers. I love manipulating language and syntax, get a real rush when a word achieves deeper meaning by where I place it in a line. I think that the power of words is the power of seeing and visa versa. It is amazing to me how changing a single word in a line, or altering its tense, or moving it to another location can create something fresh. I glory in that.

Some of my favorite writers knew/know this power very well. Coming to mind is Richard Wilbur. If you have not read this man's poetry, you have missed out on something beautiful in your reading. His use of words, his placement of words, his deep understanding of their power infuses his poetry with beauty, even when the topic of the poem is less than beautiful. Take for example First Snow in Alsace. This poem is powerful in its look at the beauty of ugliness. FYI, it is a terza rima (discussion on form in a subsequent series of blogs)

the poem:

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.


Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.


As if it did not know they'd changed
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.


The ration stackes are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.


You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.


Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise.


At children's windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.


The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:


He was the first to see the snow.


This great poem, one of my top five favorites, is a combination of simple words, common sights, and the almost  unspeakable tragedy of war. What it does is make meaning from word placement and image. There is not a single complex word herein. Crevassed is the closest thing to that. But look at how Wilbur puts his words in just the right places to make meaning: he talks about the kids at the windows looking out at beauty, while a mile or two away are dead soldiers, scattered and deranged. He combines the sparkling combs (drifts) of snow with the ammunition pile to make the contrast between the beauty and the beastly. And the end of the poem is striking in its simple contrast between a young soldier (ten first-snows back which probably means he is now barely out of his teens) and what the soldier must surely see that is not so lovely. We get to see this soldier in his innocence as he boasts (like a child would) that he was the first to see this new snow. Words: the right words in the right spot in a poem. And suddenly we are there, we are feeling the meaning. We have chills running down our spines. The impact is pure, like the snow as it first falls.

Other Wilbur poems do this too. I recommend the following for your reading and word-loving enjoyment:

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World (my all-time favorite)
The Writer
A World without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness
Boy at the Window
He Was
To An American Poet Just Dead
The Catch


These ought to keep your attention on words and their power. Happy reading on this foggy day and beyond.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Throwaway Words & Line Breaks

Well, this is going to be a tough one for some I think. I will get up right now and stand my ground while admitting it is personal choice in large part that determines the "right or wrong" of using throwaway words at the ends of lines of poetry. Certainly you will find great poems wherein the poet has throwaway words at the ends of lines and it works just fine.

Defining throwaways (my term I think, though I might have heard it from someone brilliant): a throwaway is any end word in a line of poetry that is not a noun or a verb, not an image or an action (or in some cases a state of mind or being). This includes conjunctions, such as and, but, or, etc, articles such as the, a, an and prepositions and possessives such as when, of, there, his hers, ours, my, through, during, and so on.

Why are these used? Very good question. I think they are used much the way a comma is used: too much and for the wrong reasons.

Personally I try to use articles as sparingly as possible, unless clarification or positioning is needed regarding the particular of an image. It is more often than not an unnecessary clarification. Why say "the sun" when we only have one? The big issue I have is not these words themselves, but where they are placed in a poem. I believe that every word ought to lead readers to the next word, every line to the next line, every stanza to the next stanza. I get many poems sent to me for review. I admit that one of the first things I do (a personal bias I admit) is to scan the ends of lines to see what kinds of words are being used. If I find a poem with of or and hanging off the ends of many lines, I am less warm to reading the whole poem. I DO read the whole poem of course, but with a bit of a question in my mind as to why the poet broke the line at one of these words.

Here is a made-up example of lines with throwaways:

Gone are summer days, nights of
you and me and music.
Gone are fireflies and moths to
flame that burn my brain and
call us done.


Here is the same piece with the throwaways gone:

Gone are summer days, nights
of you and me and music.
Gone are fireflies and moths
to flame, that burn my brain
and call us done.


In my opinion, the second "stanza" is more compelling. Oh sure you might say that having of at the end of line one makes the reader ask "of what?" before moving to the answer. I think that is a cheap thing to do to a reader. I also think that line two gets a nice image on its own with "of you and me and music." One might argue (reasonably too) that the of could disappear altogether. I'd agree with that on some level. If you simply had you and me and music as line two, it would work well, would be very strong. Maybe we need to discuss throwaways at beginnings of lines too! But I digress.

I believe that lines ought to end with images or actions, or at least with strong nouns that make a reader go onward. I also believe that there is something to be said for a noun that seems to convey one thing at the end of a line and does double duty be enriching meaning as the next line is unveiled.

Here is an example of that kind of enrichment of meaning from my poem, Sabbath (from Breakfast at the Brass Compass, 2009):

The point of it all is faith: that one woman's son
will come home from the storm...


Since the line makes a strong statement that everything is faith, and we know the title is Sabbath, one might leap to the notion that the one woman is Christ's mother and her son is Jesus, UNTIL we get to the next line.

Of course there is double meaning at work here, with both Mary and Jesus and the mother of a sailor being accurate or at least reasonable connotations of the lines. THAT is the power of having strong end words.

Here is an example (from my poem Storm) of how a well-placed end adjective (yes, I said adjective!) can be a strong lead to a surprise:

Sailing to windward is pure
folly....


I don't think the line would be as powerful if the line ended with is. One must conclude that the surprise is finding out what noun the adjective modifies here, or is it both? Double duty — ta-da! Later in the same poem I show that sometimes a throwaway word is just the right word, creating impact.

with coffins and urns: someone's
sons and daughters. The beacon is out,
overspilled with oil. It's a drowned thing.


Here are two cases of seemingly unimportant end words that do something great. someone's seems to refer to the coffins and urns until you get to the next line where you find it is sons and daughters. Double duty. At the end of that same line, out is a natural way to end a powerful image. The beacon is indeed OUT. No need to wait for that idea until the next line, and the next line becomes a power line on its own with the clause leading to the final statement, "It's a drowned thing."

So what to do with these throwaways? How much time should one spend worrying about the end words? The answer is individual, because it is your poem. I do think however that loads of time ought to be spent on deciding what is happening at the ends of lines. It is a revisionary moment to be sure, one where the poet can gain ground or lose it in any given poem. Personally, this is the big moment for me in revision. I look forward to working on line breaks and figuring out just the right (hopefully right) word to do what the poem wants to do. I want my readers to find surprise, but not shock, when lines do something new and fresh. I want my enjambments to work, to not be or seem arbitrary. To this end, I try nearly every line a few ways to test the power of the end word. I tweak and re-tweak until it seems right. Often I have to go back to earlier lines once I have created a power line nearer the end of the poem. An example comes to mind from my poem, Water Psalm. Let's look at the first stanza. Pay particular attention to lines four and six and seven.

Bless the water,
the flow, the ebb, the seep.
Bubble it, keep it clear.
Rinse your divine face in it, salty or fresh,
fast or pooled. Feel it in your hair
beneath the storm, hear it
outside your window, running in your dreams.


Originally I had broken line four at face, but found that the next line was weaker that way. I had also broken line six at storm, with the next line hear it outside your window. In revision, because I wanted to emphasize the sensory, I broke at a command phrase: hear it. Later in the poem is a line that caused this whole line-break revision. The line is this: let every molecule of water say its name. I realized that I wanted a series of seeming command statements (in part because this is a psalm) and the line above it is a seeming command. The speaker of the poem, the person addressing the divine YOU, is making blatant command type statements in entreaty for the desired. There are, in fact, eleven command/entreaty statements in 14 lines of the poem. This is jam-packed, dense. What it does is set up a tone for the plea. The poem is not overly demanding, but firmly pleading. If the line breaks had been different, the tone would have been different. It is of course always a choice. But the point here is that the choice should not be an arbitrary one, but one made after careful looking at the poem as a whole, and line by line.

I must say that this revision I do may not appeal to you at all. You might point out (and rightly) that some of the best poets in the world have throwaway words at the ends of their lines. There may be a whole cadre of poets out there who argue these little, seemingly insignificant words DO lead to surprise at the next lines. OK. I agree there is room for discussion here. I hold my opinion here though that FOR ME, and for the poems I look at for publishing purposes, the throwaways are beacons of concern. I will always take these as signals of possible weakness of a particular poem. But know this: I am flexible too. I judge each line on its ability to make meaning in the larger scope of the poem. The issue here is line and word and meaning. If these come together in such a way as to empower a poem, I am all for embracing however the poet managed that.

What do YOU say?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

so let's talk about adverbs

Yesterday was the day for discussing the value of adjectives in poetry. I feel the need to balance that with a bit about adverbs, mostly the "ly" words that some novice poets seem to use as crutches in their poems, propping up lines that are weak and lacking in strong image or activity.

Oh yes, I have been as guilty as anyone, not just in poems but also in my prose. It is so easy to say "he looked lovingly at.." rather than to search for a way to show it with action, either via a strong verb or other imagistic mechanism. So how to do this?

He gazed at her lovingly, fell for her in that moment

                       vs

His eyes softened as he held her face
in his hands, love leaped up and overtook him.


Which do YOU think is better?

Here is a list of to-be-avoided adverbs ("ly" words)

lovingly, softly, earnestly, carefully, sparingly (there is irony in this one!), terribly, greatly, lavishly, etc etc. You get the idea. Cast those adverbs "deeply" into the sea1 Ha Ha!




There is also a problem for many with the non-"ly" adverbs, those which modify and supposedly enhance adjectives. WELL.... if you are overusing adjectives, my guess is that you are tacking on a few very and really boosters to some of those.

her dress was really red
his speech was very aggressive
they bought a very huge gas-guzzlin'  truck


What do the adverbs add in these? NOTHING that a great image wouldn't serve better.

Her dress, scarlet as her cheeks, shone in the half light of the dance hall...


His voice, an assault on everything decent...


They thundered off the lot in their blue F-10, tank draining as they drove away. She only cared that it matched 
the color of her eyes.


Which seems more interesting to YOU?


As an editor and poetry coach, I see these problems all the time. I have worked to remove adverbs from my own poems, sometimes falling into the trap, but this happens more when I am being a lazy poet. It is easy to do, a quick fix so to speak for a bigger problem: weak poem.

I believe that it is one thing to let the dam burst in a first draft where one is getting down the essence of the ideas in a poem, another to take the easy route and not revise them out of existence. A good plan is to write everything that you think might want to be said. Give yourself permission to over-write. But then, and this is where the wheat and the chaff separate, do the work of revision: eliminate, trim, cut, slice. Get those adverbs gone. Try this:

Take a poem you have already written and circle all the adverbs. Rewrite with none of them. What has happened to the poem? If it is strong enough, you might be done. If it seems to flatten out or if what you wanted to say seems to have become vague, you have more to do. You need to strengthen your images and activate your verbs. This is a wonderful way to diagnose adverb sickness.



Tomorrow we will talk about "throwaway words." Stay tuned.