Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Inside Clothes

I read an old post on another blog wherein the author discussed having clothing worn only "inside" and not for public appearances. I have done a version of this all my life. When I was little, we had "play clothes" that we put on after coming home from school. I recall my mother saying things like "go change into your play clothes so you don't ruin your school clothes" and then it was "change out of your church clothes and into your play clothes, and hang up your good clothes please." Once I had kids, it was a certainty that I was not doing all the domestic stuff in clothing I'd later wear to the grocery store or downtown. I think this kept certain clothing from wearing out too quickly, getting stained by food, cleaning materials, or glue from whatever project I was doing with the kids. In the "olden days" my mother wore an apron, something I don only for serious cooking projects. You will often find me at home with a dish towel slung over one shoulder, but no waist-tied aprons for me.

I have to say that I love soft, comfortable clothing, the feeling of being unrestricted. I cannot wait to get home and into my inside clothes, including my jammies. In fact, at some point in each day, I declare "it's jammie time," and go get into the most comfy clothing of all. Now I admit that my inside clothes and jammies are not sloppy, disheveled or the like. But they are not clothes I'd wear to church or a school board meeting or poetry group. My neighbor has often stated that I look "put together" when she drops by for tea or a visit. I was thinking about this yesterday and discussing this with a friend at a party. She suggests it might be that I wear jewelry all the time, no matter whether I am at home or out and about. Hmmm. I also wear makeup. It has just been a habit I've gotten into I guess, like brushing teeth, washing face,etc. I just do these things. I don't think my husband and/or family deserves any less than the general public. I want to look good even when being "at home" and "comfortable. So I have good jammies, nice t-shirts, and wear makeup and jewelry and perfume no matter what. I remember a song from the late 60s or early 70s "Wives and Lovers" where the singer admonishes the listener that "wives should always be lovers too, so run to the door whenever he comes home to you." I make an effort to look my best even when not wearing my best.

I add to the mix here that I do not wear shoes inside. First of all, I am uncomfortable having my feet restrained. UGH. I also do not think that shoes which are worn outside in the yard or on the street are appropriate inside because of all that gets "brought in" on the bottoms of them. I remove my shoes in the hallway and go barefooted or else wear slippers (only in cold weather!) I have often thought of having a basket of slippers (the knit footie kind) at the door so people who come in can be comfortable and no "icky stuff" will come in to my house on their feet. Is this obsessive? I guess not since I don't do that. But I am sure not going to wear MY shoes in the house.

What does this idea of inside clothes have to do with writing? Maybe nothing at all. But I have a hunch that how comfortable I am contributes to mood, which certainly does affect my writing.

Here's a challenge:

1. respond to this poet with your ideas about inside clothes
2. write a poem about YOUR clothes

Enough for today. I need to get out of my jammies and go downtown to do a little Christmas shopping.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

punctuation is not an end, but rather a means: rules and biases

I like to consider punctuation an integral part of any writing. It's not just an end thing, a way to put in a stopper. It's way more than that for me. It's a breath, a pause of some strength or length, or simply a way to gain the attention of the reader saying get ready for something else. I am, of late, distressed to see the rebuking of the Oxford comma, that little curvy mark that separates a list from the oncoming conjunction: we ate ham, cheese, and toast with our eggs. We now see it without that comma before the "and," which makes me a little bit crazy. I look at a load of submitted poems for my 'zine (note the apostrophe!) and can tell you that nonuse (or, worse yet, misuse) of punctuation sends me 'round the bend (ha! another apostrophe!) Someone recently told me that the apostrophe in contractions is unnecessary now. This trend toward eliminating them is due to internet "speech" and to laziness. My students' papers were littered with incorrect usage of punctuation, including non-contracted contractions. Yikes! Cough! I consider this a sign of laziness or ignorance. (Harsh, you say? Well, there it is: I'm okay being harsh on this)

Through time, we have seen many changes and alterations in punctuation, and certainly cannot call it static. But the abandonment of punctuation by some writers (including some in my own circles) is jarring to me. I have a notion that some people avoid using ANY punctuation because they simply do not know (remember?) how to use it. The truth is that poetry is not like any other kind of writing in terms of lines, punctuation. We do not always end a line in punctuation. This is, in part, because the ends of our lines are not necessarily the ends of our lines. We enjamb. Since we do, we need to signal to our readers just when they ought to pause, stop, or move onward through the line to the next without awkwardness. We don't want readers to enjamb our lines if we do not intend them to BE enjambed. Punctuation serves the purpose of saying "pause here a bit before moving on" or its lack says "keep going to the next line without pausing." It is particularly important in fixed form poetry where pausing might overemphasize the rhyme, making it seem forced. We want our readers to feel comfortable with how they read our poems. We don't want them to pause to try to suss out HOW the line ought to be read. For me, I want my readers to flow through the poems and feel the meaning. I do not want them to have so much to do that they miss the glory of words, phrases, and meanings. Unfair at its very root.

One form of punctuation that is abused and overused is the ! (in all forms of writing). We generally do not see the ! used in formal writing, but we do see it all over the place in casual writing. It can be annoying to be told how we are to feel as we read. Certainly the ! is, in my opinion, just that: a directive to get excited. I want to decide when and where I get excited. Please don't tell me to do it.

In poetry, use of the ! can mark the poet as having little in the way of skill for creating emphasis. There are so many ways to create emphasis that having nothing to do with punctuation. Using the ! ought to be relegated to the quirky poem, the satirical poem, the experimental. I fully admit to personal bias here. When I see the ! used in a poem, I tend to disregard the poem and the poet out of hand. OK, so maybe I'm being harsh here, but I embrace this little bias. It works for me. Remember, I did say the experimental, the humor poem, etc are places where the ! is fair game, so please don't hate me for my little biases! (LOL)

Another of the abused forms of punctuation (thanks Emily D) is the long dash, the em dash. One of my poet friends absolutely loves the long dash. She uses it profusely. I am trying to break her em dash habit. Others in my writing group are also fond of this punctuation and use it, too often in some cases. It is infectious, almost viral. Using the em dash is a convenient way to put in punctuation when one is unsure of how much of a pause is needed. It is also a way to set a kind of placeholder while one decides the length of a pause. I think that the em dash in a first draft, used as a placeholder, is fine. In fact, it is helpful, as long as it can be reworked into some other form of punctuation later. It is good and prudent to look long and hard at these placeholder dashes when revising and to ask the hard questions about intent and meaning when doing so.

I will end today's blog with a few "rules" for using the long dash (the em dash) which is so called due to its width, the approximate width of the letter "m" in typing. Grammarians warn us to use it sparingly, if at all, in formal writing. In informal writing, it MAY be used more liberally to replace commas, semicolons, colons, parentheses. It can signal added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought. It is this last use (abrupt change of thought) where the em dash can function beautifully in poetry. Remember, "normal" rules can be a bit different in poetry than in prose. We poets need to consider our readers carefully when we punctuate. Just because we CAN use the em dash, we need not if it will cause the reader untoward work to understand or read our poems. Indeed we ought not. I'll (not Ill) leave you with a decision: to dash or not to dash. But if you send me a poem, I will look at the em dash with a jaded eye. Fair warning!

Examples:You are the friend—the only friend—who offered to help me.
Never have I met such a lovely person—before you.
I pay the bills—she has all the fun.

A semicolon would be used here in formal writing.
I need three items at the store—dog food, vegetarian chili, and cheddar cheese.

Remember, a colon would be used here in formal writing.
My agreement with Fiona is clear—she teaches me French and I teach her German.

Again, a colon would work here in formal writing.
Please call my agent—Jessica Cohen—about hiring me.

Parentheses or commas would work just fine here instead of the dashes.
I wish you would—oh, never mind.

This shows an abrupt change in thought and warrants an em dash.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Intrinsic substance and human experience

My Facebook friend, Ren Powell, journaled the following:

I have days where I think that poetry is a sham and that I have wasted time, energy and money on something ultimately constructed on such things as religion are made of. No roots, no hooks, no intrinsic substance. And then I remember the point of it all is that it has no intrinsic substance; it is the weaving of meaning in the empty space between us; it is context-dependent and ephemeral; it is activity, not object. Which is precisely why it creates the illusion of shared experience - and of devastating isolation.

I think about this frequently, especially when I am writing and the poem seems to be gasping on the page. It is very frustrating to be an artist in a world where your art is considered passé or intrinsically useless. But I realize pretty quickly that I am just being self-pitying. It is a stance against which I choose to battle by continuing to write and revise. I can (mostly) write myself out of this state. As Ren says so beautifully, it is about the connective tissue of the spaces, and most assuredly a shared experience via these connections, illusory or real. This morning, buoyed by Ren's journal entry, I feel a bit like singing.

Earlier today, I was lying in bed, waking myself and reflecting on the past several days of Thanksgiving visitors and activities. I have to acknowledge that all of it: the cooking, the music, the laughter, the eating, the being downtown in chilly temps to see the Lobster Trap Tree illuminated for the first time this season, is evidence of that weaving of connections, that stretching out of spaces to make merry and be human. Being alive and connected to others in the small things is exactly the kind of humanity that fuels my writing and strengthens the connections with readers. Oh yes, there is certainly a sense of profound discouragement when poetry is disparaged by some, or when poetry books are not promoted and purchased. But that is a pebble under foot compared to the elation and satisfaction I feel when hearing that my 19 year old grandson and his college mates sit around and discuss my poetry even though it is not required reading for their program of study. Oh what could be better for a poet than to find out people are reading and discussing! It makes the self-defeating chatter in our heads get fainter and fainter.