Saturday, November 22, 2014

One Book, Two Takes: This Blue

In this installment of “One Book, Two Takes,” poet Pepper Trail and I both review Maureen McLane’s This Blue, a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for Poetry. Pepper and I had no idea what the other reviewer would write, or whether the other even liked the book—a “blind judging” method that, I hope, helps explore very different aspects of the same book. 

This Blue
by Maureen McLane
128 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

Reviewed by Pepper Trail

Picking up This Blue from Amy Miller’s dining room table, I was fortunate to open it to “Glacial Erratic,” a fine poem that mixes formal declaration with shreds of overheard conversation to produce a vivid snapshot of our anxious American moment. I was hooked, and was happy to accept Amy’s suggestion that we write independent reviews—even though I’ve never reviewed a book of poetry.
  McLane’s National Book Award nomination for This Blue meant that the book was sold out everywhere when I tried to order one, and it was a couple of weeks before I got my own copy. When I did, I was rather bewildered by the diversity of voices in the collection—a quality that Frank Bidart in his back-cover quote describes (not very helpfully) as “luminous fragments—the shattered mirror that everywhere reflects a light-filled ungraspable whole.”
  The poems in this collection are difficult to classify—lacking, say, the plainspoken humanity of Ted Kooser, the gravitas of Robert Pinsky, or the prickly wit of Tony Hoagland. McLane’s strength lies not in a cohesive style, but rather in her restless intelligence and observant, glittering eye. Almost all her lines are short (“Terran Life” is the only exception, and it provides pleasures that make the reader wish she allowed her muse to slip the leash more often). But McLane’s themes—and, I think she would argue, our cultural moment—call for fragmentation. Certainly Emily Dickinson showed us the jolting epiphanies that can be created by fractured diction, and McLane is capable of Dickinsonian moments: “I shared a skin / with my skin. / I was in / my life not of. / I hovered above.” (from “Incarnation”).
  This Blue is comprised of five sections, and after several readings a thematic structure emerges, a search for meaning that begins with rather adolescent demands for answers in Section I and evolves by Section V into something like wisdom (though I’m sure McLane would wince at that word). The middle section, III, begins with references to Dante and his search for meaning in The Divine Comedy, a search he began “midway in my life’s journey.” Making herself perfectly clear, McLane follows this with her poem “Mezzo,” meaning middle. Poems in this section reference not only Dante, but Pound, Yeats, and others, as McLane looks for her guide, her Virgil: “No guide led me here / but Virgil and everyone / I ever met, in woods / books dreams in suburbs / the city the farm.” (“Today’s Comedy”).
  At the beginning, Section I, McLane was not nearly so humble. In “What I’m Looking For” she lays it out: “What I’m looking for / is an unmarked door / we’ll walk through / and there: whatever / we’d wished for / beyond the door.” The predominant form here is the lyric, but a lyric often deliberately marred (a pigeon’s “common gullet,” a Persian boy’s “succulent anus,” the Fairie Queen as “glam tranny,” etc.). The poem’s questions are often directed to nature, but with the frustrated sense that nature cannot provide the answers, as exemplified by the idiot pigeons of “Aviary” and the inscrutable ferns of “OK Fern.”
  By Section II, McLane has moved on to search for answers in human relationships. Sex is a frequent intruder (as in “Morning with Adirondack Chair”) or the main event (as in “Tell Us What Happened After We Left”). This section contains some of the finest poems in the collection, including “Incantation,” “Even Those,” and “Glacial Erratic,” but ends with death: “Strange thing / to survive to discover / you will live / until one day it’s over / no more to discover” (“Road / Here Now”).
  The Dantean wanderings of Section III appear to produce mostly exhaustion, and Section IV attacks civilization and its discontents, especially environmental destruction and cultural hypocrisy. Bitterness is the tone: “The body? My amplified / brain’s going haywire / not to mention / my juiced-up tits / and pumped lips. An army / of amputees marches / on Dacron prosthetics / the military should do better by. / I was nostalgic / until I got over it.” (“Things of August”).
  And so it was a considerable relief to find a wealth of beautiful poems—melancholy and elegiac, yes, but beautiful—in the final section. In language, McLane finds the strength to go on: “In this our post-shame century / we will reclaim / the old nouns / unembarrassed.” (“Horoscope”). There is an indirect answer to the direct question of Section I’s “OK Fern” (“Tell me what to do / with my life”) in Section V’s “Local Habitation”: “Here’s wonder’s / best kept secret / Don’t leak / your want.” It is the asking that keeps us alive. The lovely final poem “Envoi” acknowledges the losses that are the stuff of our lives, but finds consolation in the beauty of the world: “I noticed today under a tree / nobody was singing to me / but oh there was singing / and there was that one tree.”
  I’m grateful to Maureen McLane for these songs, and glad that I took the time to discern the harmony beneath the surface crackles and hiss of This Blue.

Pepper Trail’s poems have appeared in Windfall, Cirque, Comstock Review, Atlanta Review, Kyoto Journal, and other publications, including the anthology What the River Brings: Oregon River Poems. His essays appear regularly in High Country News and Jefferson Monthly, the magazine of Jefferson Public Radio. His poem “Syllabus for the Warming World” was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Cascadia Review. He lives in Ashland, Oregon, where he works as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Reviewed by Amy Miller

Poets are like Play-doh: When we come in contact with poetry that has a rich, distinctive voice, we tend to pick up its imprint and knead it into our own work. So, workshopmates, be warned: I’ll be sounding like Maureen McLane for a while.
  In a time when the pared-down line is a critical darling*, This Blue offers a master class in brevity. McLane does a wonderful thing here: She offers the reader just enough bread crumbs to navigate her tight forest of words while handing out a generous amount of wry humor at the same time. But her subject matter is anything but light. Zigging and zagging from tragedy to dark comedy, these poems twist and punch with a fierce and playful energy, yet are, at their heart, deadly serious—climate change, destruction of nature, human civilization swelling to its critical mass, the fragile landscapes of love, and the specks and forces of the universe itself. Where we find ourselves in all that detritus is central to her theme—more question than answer. What do we do with all this? What can we do?
  McLane’s gift is the way she delivers this often unsettling message: intricate, short lines stacked in columns; a lively, sometimes goofy musicality; and that rich vein of wit. Just when she’s lulled you into a gorgeous reverie, she hits you with an outrageous declaration: “Memory is boring.” Or in a painful account of a thorny relationship (“Late Hour”), she slips in a line that’s laugh-out-loud funny: 

  isn’t it time
  to say the garden
  is wasted

  on us? untended
  roses the japanese
  beetles gone


  I’ve got to say, it felt good to laugh while reading a National Book Award finalist. 
  Through all this bumpy landscape, McLane makes you feel as if she’s walking alongside you as a friend, or at least a great drinking companion. At times, she veers into technospeak, with ampersands and abbreviations—“the eye / requires a horizon / Thoreau somewhere sd”—as if she’s texting you from a darkened movie theater. Other poems would hold their own at a slam, with hard rhymes like “carry”/ “tarry,” or a string in which she ends lines with “dead,” “said,” “head,” and “fled”—a sequence that would be disastrous in the wrong hands, but that she gets away with. Some poems share first lines, last lines, entire phrases—techniques that might get shot down in the average writing workshop, but that work in McLane’s world. This is a “Don’t try this at home” book. Or rather, it’s a celebration of bent rules.
  But for all its playfulness, This Blue returns again and again to the landscape of loss. One section wanders the old cities of Europe with a sense of bemusement for the grand, vainglorious past, history brought down to an all-too-human scale. Elsewhere she reminds us that nature moves on without the human race—which brings a sort of solace, even if it’s a comforting indifference, a disinterest that nature takes in us. Always the underlying sadness:

  Love’s in Gloucester
  where the whalers once sailed
  and the cod’s collapsed

  but the sea the sea
  calls to whoever
  has ears for what’s leaving and left.


  McLane has ears for just that. And in her terse, tight phrasing and attention to sound and rhythm—a shorthand that, just a few pages into the book, begins to feel like an efficient new language—she tells us what she hears.

* For a more extreme example, see Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood, also a finalist for the National Book Award. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book review: The Last Policeman Trilogy

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ The Last Policeman (2013)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ Countdown City (2013)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ World of Trouble (2014)

Ben H. Winters

The last time I read a trilogy was probably in the 1980s—Dune or Foundation or something. I don’t have the attention span for them anymore, and there are so many great novels waiting to be read that I rarely stick with any author for more than one book, let alone three.
      For this trilogy, I made an exception.
      Ben Winters has come up with a great combination here: a mash-up of two disparate genres, the murder mystery and the apocalypse novel. And he’s such a gifted writer that he moves easily through quick pacing and plot twists, making for a thrilling, thought-provoking read from the beginning to the end of the trilogy.
      In all three novels, cop Henry Palace is doing his gumshoe best to fight crime in his hometown of Concord, New Hampshire (another unlikely device—thrillers set in New Hampshire?) and, later, the Midwest. But there’s a greater threat lurking: A gigantic asteroid that’s about to plow into the Earth and wipe out life as we know it. In the first novel, the end of the world is a few months away, the asteroid a mere dot in a high-powered telescope. When the second and third books open, it’s down to weeks, then days. As the trilogy progresses, society falls apart as people all over the world prepare for the end of their lives. But there’s Henry, still plunking away at his job, trying to keep a little law and order in his corner of the chaos. Again and again, this brings up a question: Why would anyone care about an ordinary thing like their job when everything around them is about to go up in a fiery wreck?
      The meat of these novels is how differently people answer that very question. Some “go bucket”—chuck their responsibilities and binge on drugs, traveling, sex, whatever they wanted to do their whole lives but denied themselves or never had time for. Others stockpile ammunition and fearfully ride out the disaster in a dark bunker. Others, like Henry Palace, try to hold together the seams of human civilization for as long as possible. And it’s that quixotic dream that makes Henry such a likeable hero: To him, order still matters. People still matter. He’s the kind of companion—taciturn, practical, but ultimately kind—that you’d want by your side when the big one hits.
     I highly recommend starting with the first novel to get grounded in the background and to experience the gradual disintegration of human culture, but each novel stands well on its own as a distinct story.
      Winters, who called The Last Policeman “an existential detective novel,” has made a career of driving square pegs into round holes with a literary hammer and making it work spectacularly well. (His Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was a bestseller in 2009.) I see on his website that he’ll do it again with his next novel, due in 2016: Underground Airlines, a crime drama set in an alternate present day where the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal. According to Winters*, “[Underground Airlines] is about race and racism, it’s about grief, it’s about the horror of American slavery, and it’s about compromise. Well, I mean, I think that’s what this book is about. I’m not done.”
      I, for one, will have that baby on pre-order. I can’t wait to see what Winters does with it.

*Have a look at Edwin Battistella’s site, Literary Ashland, for a great interview with Winters from early this year.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A few favorite place names in that big wild stretch
between I-5 and the Oregon Coast

Onion Mountain

Rowdy Creek

Mountain Man RV Park

Bruce’s Bones Creek

Wonder Stump Road

Suicide Creek

Hard Cash Lane

Our Road

Sunday, September 21, 2014

One Book, Two Takes: Gone Girl

A few weeks back, my friend and fellow writer Wendy Ledger mentioned that she was about to read Gone Girl, a blockbuster novel that’s about to be made into a movie. I was looking for something to read too, and I had an idea: What if we both read Gone Girl, and then each wrote a short, personal review of it? And what if I posted both reviews together on my blog right here? So we did it—without having any idea what the other was writing, or whether she even liked the book. Let’s see how the experiment works.

Gone Girl
by Gillian Flynn
432 pages
Broadway Books, 2012

Too Cool for School?
Reviewed by Wendy Ledger

If I were to teach a class on novel writing, I would want Gone Girl to be included in the syllabus. You could discuss structure. This book is told from two points of view: the husband and the wife. It plays with time. The book starts with the husband shortly before his wife’s disappearance. Then the wife submits her point of view through past diary entries. In this way, we learn some of the back story of this couple’s relationship. So, we not only have two different voices at two different times but also through two different means of communication. How is a story different when the narrator tells it to you directly and when we read written entries? At a point in the novel, the diary is abandoned, and the wife tells her story in present time, and more is revealed. The voices are distinct and intense. Reliability is an issue. I was immediately hooked by the structure of this book.
      However, I had trouble with the characterizations. While I was reading Gone Girl, I felt like a floating head. My heart and soul were not engaged. I still compulsively turned the pages, but I ultimately did not care about any of the characters. In this story of high drama, where a person is missing and there are accusations of foul play, I found that I didn’t care about any of the characters. I also questioned the investigation. I felt that certain things would have been discovered by the authorities in a much faster time.
      There were moments when I could imagine that I could empathize with these characters, particularly with the wife, Amy. I was fascinated by the account of her childhood. What would be it like to have parents who used your life as fodder for their livelihood? How would it feel to have a character named after you and whose books followed you through your life experiences? That intrigued me, and yet I remained put off.
      In the novel, Amy talked about how, when she met her husband, she pretended that she was cool, and she felt that he fell in love with that veneer. I ended up feeling that way about Gone Girl. It is slick. It is well worth a read, particularly if you are interested in the craft of writing, but I would not speak of it with any fondness. However, I am looking forward to the movie. I feel like the ultimate chump in admitting that, but it’s true. Why do I want to see it? First of all, I can completely imagine Ben Affleck as Nick, the disappointing husband. He seems perfect for that role. I also want to see if I feel the same way about the characters when I see them on the big screen. I know that, when I have seen Anne Tyler’s novels translated into film, the characters have seemed different to me. Their lovable quirks that worked so well on the printed page did not seem as endearing in their celluloid counterparts. Will the cinematic adaptation of Gone Girl make me feel differently about these characters? I want to know. In addition, I want to see how they handle the structure in the movie. Will they have so many time changes? Earlier this year, I read that Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, changed the ending in the screenplay. Recently, I heard that the ending isn’t that different. Is this yet another manipulation? I have to find out what’s true.

Wendy Ledger is a writer, editor, and transcriptionist who lives in Ben Lomond, California. She writes about The Good Wife here

Be Gone, Girl
Reviewed by Amy Miller

First, I have to say that if I hadn’t committed to reviewing this book, I would have stopped after 50 pages and tossed it on the Goodwill pile. (Note to future rash reviewer self!) I hated the wife, and with the author’s device of both spouses telling the story in alternating chapters, there was way too much of her early on. She was such a snarky, cooler-than-thou entitled hipster that I couldn’t figure out what her husband ever saw in her.
      But that two-narrator structure ended up saving the book. It kept creating questions that intrigued me: Where will these two stories, told in different time frames, collide? Which of these people is lying? And Flynn’s ploy of cliffhanger chapter endings, even if it felt cheap at times, also kept me turning the pages. Gone Girl is pretty much a textbook on how to keep a reader hooked.
      Flynn strikes a tricky balance between suspense and literary fiction: The twists and machinations are all thriller, while the rich backstory and character development lean toward literary fiction. For the most part that balance worked, but for me, it fell apart at the ending, which veered way off in the literary direction, for reasons I won’t get into. After all that tilt-a-whirl plotting, revenge, and deception, I wanted a good suspense-novel smack at the end.
      Knowing that the movie version of this is about to come out, I kept imagining actors in various roles (though, alas, none of these people were actually cast). Cherry Jones is clearly the world-wise detective, and I wish Jason Robards were still with us to play the half-crazy dad. For the rest, I plunked the American Hustle cast in there: Amy Adams as the icy wife, Christian Bale the hapless husband, Jennifer Lawrence the ditzy homewrecker, Bradley Cooper the overfed celebrity lawyer. It will be a terrible date movie, though; Gone Girl is, as much as anything, the story of a marriage—a really f***ed-up one. 
      One thing the book does well is take us inside one of those lurid media-soaked murder cases where a pretty, white, pregnant wife in some small town is killed and the husband is accused. This one looks a lot like the very sad Laci Peterson case, which turned the sleepy community of Modesto, California, upside down ten years ago. Gone Girl hits all those notes—the paparazzi camped outside the husband’s house, the muckraking cable news host fanning the flames, the slick high-profile lawyer, trending and Twitter and the endless true-crime newsfeed that passes as entertainment in our country. In fact, the story may feel dated in a few years, it’s so much a product of our times.*
      The plotting gets a little lumpy late in the book, with some minor characters surfacing and then disappearing when their story-moving part was done. And that ending sort of gave me hives. When it was over, I felt relieved to get away from these people who schemed so ferociously to screw each other over. But you know, it was fun to get my head spun for a while. I was just happy to get off the ride.

* Speaking of our times, I’ve got to take my hat off to any author whose book has more than 22,000 reader reviews on Amazon.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

My Tupelo 30/30 writing comrade Amy Schreibman Walter has invited me to join the “My Writing Process Blog Tour,” where bloggers answer four (kinda hard) questions about their writing, then tag other bloggers to do the same. You can read how Amy answered these same four questions on her blog right here. While you’re out and about, have a look at here/there:poetry, the beautiful U.K.–based journal that she co-edits. Thanks, Amy!

Question #1: What are you working on?
I almost backed out of doing this, just for this question alone. I’m like one of those weekend handypeople with messy, unfinished projects strewn around the house. Let’s see...I’m working on: a) A new chapbook called In the Hand, using Amazon’s CreateSpace, for a book show and class I’m teaching on CreateSpace in two weeks. Just approved the proof—woo-hoo! b) A cycle of poems about Wolf OR-7 that I started during the 30/30 marathon. c) A series of poems all called “Poplar,” about my soon-to-be-cut-down poplar tree. Which sounds like a stupid idea when I say it that way. [Breathe...follow where it goes...] d) Tinkering with another chapbook manuscript that’s turning out to be an odd duck. e) Fretting over my full-length manuscript, retooling and freshening with some new material. f) A freelance job, reading and commenting on a friend’s full-length manuscript. g) Writing a short, personal review of Gone Girl that I’ll post on my blog soon, alongside a writer friend’s short, personal review of the same book. An experiment in blog collaboration. h) And I’m writing this here blog post right now!

Question #2: How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I think it’s different because it’s in my voice. It represents a painting of some part of my brain that was in that particular configuration when I wrote that particular poem. Those cells have now died and others have taken their place and shifted around, so that part of my brain doesn’t look like that anymore. But now I have new brain parts that are completely unique, and that will generate poems that no one else writes. I never get tired of thinking of that. We all have brains like that. So do cats and whales and marmots.
  I suppose my work’s unique flavor, if it has one, comes from the fact that I like to mix a lot—sadness and humor, irony and the ecstatic, surprising language and the workaday. Mix, mix, mix—forms, voices, subject matter.

Question #3: Why do you write what you do?
With poetry, the trigger is usually an idea that holds at least two emotions or mental states at once: This event was both exciting and dangerous, or my devotion to this person or thing is also tinged with doubt. So, again, it’s mixture and complexity that intrigues me.
  With nonfiction, I generally am looking for a deep well of that same complexity. But for an essay, it needs more story, a little more of this happened and then that happened. For a magazine article, I like to find something I haven’t seen a lot of articles about, an article that I would like to read. And once in a while, somebody casually says, “You should write about blah blah blah.” I try to pay attention to that, because sometimes those are great ideas.

Question #4: How does your writing process work?
I’m going to answer this twice, because, for me, poetry and nonfiction are completely different processes.
  Writing a poem is like laying an egg—when the idea comes, it has to be birthed right then. There’s a feeling of recognition—this line or image or two-sided emotion feels fertile, like it has the strength to carry a poem. I grab a pen and paper, wherever I am, and work on it. The best ones tend to come very late at night or very early in the morning, near sleep; the subconscious has way better ideas than the conscious does. But I don’t have a set time for writing poetry. My revision process is similarly haphazard; I’ll do a flood of revisions when I’m in a brutal, slash-and-burn, clean-the-closet state of mind. If I’m not in that mood, I can’t make those merciless cuts that poems sometimes need.
  Writing nonfiction, on the other hand, is like building a house. I just start hammering it together—a frame, rough walls that will get prettied up later. It’s a linear process, and I don’t have to be inspired—I can sit my butt down any time of day or night and just get to work. I go through many drafts—I finish a draft, make a copy of it, start at the beginning, and go through the whole thing again. Early drafts are “meatball surgery,” big additions and deletions; later ones are about smoothing transitions and punching up every sentence. I read a lot out loud at every stage. Prose, for me, is all about revision—that’s the ingredient that takes adequate writing and makes it good.
  With prose, inspiration tends to strike during the revision stage, sort of like that last set of tennis (to throw in yet another simile), when you’re good and sweaty and just allowing your body to do what it knows how to do, and it surprises you by being graceful and clever. But with poetry, inspiration is usually the starting point—some sort of alchemical spark that’s much harder to plan for.

                                                           *        *        *        *        *

Okay—next up on the blog tour are Michael Allyn Wells and Cathy Barber. Their “My Writing Process” posts will appear next Thursday (September 18th). A little about Michael and Cathy:

Michael Allyn Wells has lived all his life in Missouri, but he is totally in love with the San Francisco area. He views baseball as poetry on a living scale, and he may be the most dedicated SF Giants fan outside the Bay Area.
     For 27 years he has worked in a mental health–related field. After serving in a leadership role in a major political party for 14 years, he rekindled his interest in baseball and began writing. He has authored some historical baseball essays, but the bulk of his writing and passion has been for poetry. He enjoys classical, rock, pop and smooth jazz. Loves the saxophone, photography and painting, and is especially a fan of the abstract. Prefers his wine white and coffee black.
     Michael’s work has appeared in many journals and online venues including Boston Literary Magazine, The Annual Rockhurst Fine Arts Review, Punchnel’s Magazine, Rose & Thorn Review, Montucky Review, and Right Hand Pointing. Michael has blogged since 2003 on poetry, art, culture and occasionally social issues at
     Michael is the father of four grown children. He currently makes his home in a suburban community in the Kansas City, Missouri area along with his wife, two rescue dogs and a cat.

Cathy Barber is a poet living in San Mateo, California. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA from California State University, East Bay. She teaches poetry to young people through California Poets in the Schools, which is tons of fun and about as rewarding as work can get. And she occasionally writes a humor blog, Is It Just Me, where she rants about life’s indignities, especially those indignities that affect her personally, because it is, after all, her blog. You can read her poetry in many online journals, including most recently West Trestle Review and Red Booth Review.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

30/30 Project, Day 29: When Prose Turns Poetry

One more day to go on the Tupelo Press 30/30 poetry marathon. One more poem to write. As usual, I have no idea what it will be.
      But chances are, it won’t be like yesterday’s poem. One thing I’ve noticed while writing a poem every day this month is how much I like variety. Or hate sameness. To keep the writing marathon from feeling like drudgery, I had to mix things up a lot—I wrote not just narrative and lyric poems, but also sentence-based ones, fragmented ones, songs, kit-bash nursery rhymes, long lines, short lines, real and imagined pasts, unvarnished and hyper presents.

Prose me
One thing I especially wanted to write this month was prose poems—I love those when they’re done well, and I perversely enjoy the fact that not everyone considers them poetry. I’d forgotten about prose poems until a couple of nights ago, when an opening line started to feel like a prose/poetry hybrid: “The sky’s burnt blue and the car jerks like a popcorn popper.” Suddenly I remembered, Oh, prose poem!, put down my notebook, and grabbed the little Logitech bluetooth keyboard that talks to my iPad. Usually I write poetry longhand because I like the lag time between when the words form in my head and when my hand writes them down; it gives me a micromoment to do a first edit. But prose comes out of my head faster than poetry, so I tend to write it on a keyboard because I can type much faster than I can write. And it turns out that works well for prose poems too.
      After writing that prose poem, I was hungry for more. So last night, when I decided to write about a relationship that’s always felt like one of those paranormal tourist traps (Mystery Spot, Oregon Vortex, Confusion Hill) where water supposedly runs uphill and the laws of physics don’t apply, it felt like it wanted to be another prose poem. So I wrote it that way—on the little keyboard, in one continuous paragraph. As usual, I tinkered with it a while, then e-mailed it to myself to take another pass through it in the morning before sending it off to the nice Tupelo 30/30 people.

Break me
But overnight, during a humid and restless sleep, I kept breaking that prose poem into lines. So this morning, when it was time to polish it up and send it off, I tried it three different ways—as the prose poem I’d envisioned, as a square-built sonnet (which it naturally flowed into when I pulled in the margins a little), and then as a skinnier poem with shorter lines and many line breaks. Interestingly, the one with all the line breaks triggered a more rigorous revision process. I could see which lines needed punching up when I broke them down into pieces—the weak phrases stuck up like cowlicks, where in the prose poem, they could hide a little more in the long lines. So I made some revisions and then took out all the line breaks to turn it back into a prose poem—and I didn’t like it as much as that way. So I put the line breaks back in and sent it off.
      So now I wonder if a useful process might be to compose poems more often on the keyboard in a block of paragraph text first, and add the line breaks later. I’m sure some poets work this way all the time, but I’ve never tried it. I liked the way it felt with this poem, as if I were running it through two different filters—a passionate one first, then a painstaking one.
      Another useful tidbit learned from this poetry marathon, and something to try again later.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tupelo Press 30/30 Poetry Project, Day 24:
Into the Woodshed

I won’t lie to you, folks. The going got tough last week in my poetry-writing marathon for the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. At about day 14, I got awfully grumbly about having to write a poem every day. My inner teenager, who does not like having to sit down dutifully with a notebook in her lap every night, pitched a fit. That surly mix of boredom, rebelliousness, and laziness rears her pimply face every time I do a poetry marathon, sometimes at the start, sometimes at the end (which is extra frustrating—I mean, come on, girl, we’re almost there!). This time she showed up right in the middle, when I still had a lot of marathoning to do.

Earlier bird
The teenager was fed up with the schedule I was trying to keep: I’d simply replaced my late-night reading time with late-night writing time. That went fine for a couple of weeks, but two problems surfaced. First, writing at the very end of the day, every day, meant that I was writing tired, which made me resent having to concentrate so hard and resulted in some rushed, treat-’em-and-street-’em poems. Second, writing takes more time than reading, and it revs up my brain more, so I ended up staying up later than I normally do. And I’m sorry, but I’m 52 and just can’t do that anymore—I was too grumpy and groggy in the morning, when I had to haul my ass off to work. After two weeks of that, I could see it was not a sustainable writing regimen. And part of this marathon business was that I wanted to figure out how to fit more writing time into my life. (Hence the post two weeks ago about how in the hell people with full-time jobs ever find time to write.)
       So I tried a small adjustment: I started writing earlier in the evening, right after dinnertime, instead of at bedtime. And now, about 10 days into the new plan, it’s going pretty well. I’ve got much more patience and brain power right after dinner, when I’m well fed and ready to shut off the TV following my hour of pathetic-single-person dinnertime watching.* It’s actually enjoyable to write at that hour. Who knew?

Millions of musicians can’t be wrong
Another thing I’m liking about this marathon is that I’m finally doing something I’ve wanted to do for years: woodshed. This is a term musicians use for time spent practicing alone, usually holed up in a room with a guitar, trying to just get better. When I’ve felt frustrated with workshops or sick of my writing, I’ve often wished I could lock myself away for a month or few and just write. It’s a simple concept, but remarkably hard to do amid life and all its distractions. But to give this 30/30 marathon its full due, I cleared my schedule (as much as can be done while working a day job) and devoted a lot of evenings to it. And a couple of days ago, when I looked back through the poems I’ve written this month, I realized, Hey, look at that—I woodshedded! I didn’t even realize I was doing it. For some reason, this marathon was more woodshed-y than, say, NaPoWriMo; because the 30/30 poems are posted in a public place, I’ve put more time into them and ended up with more poems that may turn into something publishable. (We’ll see about that.)

Postpoetry depression?
Now I’m concerned that at the end of July I’ll collapse in a heap and won’t write again for months. But honestly, this marathon hasn’t felt like a chore. It’s been invigorating in ways I hadn’t expected. Plus, I can’t slack off right away—I’ve already signed up to do the August Poetry Postcard Fest, where I’ll have to write a short poem on a postcard each day and send it off to a stranger. But that’s a whole different thing: short poem, one reader. Like whispering in someone’s ear. Kind of the opposite of posting the poem on a site where all can see it. And yet, still poetry. Still writing. Hallelujah.

* These days it’s usually Castle. I am a sucker for Nathan Fillion. For a long time, it was The Mentalist. So it’s pretty much whatever TNT chooses to addict me to.

Photo by Chris Brown.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Making Time When You Don’t Have Time

For the two people on the planet that I have not told, I’ve been writing a poem every day this month and posting them on the 30/30 Project page, along with eight other marathoners writing like crazy to raise some funds for the wonderful Tupelo Press.
     How’s the marathon going? Actually, better than I expected. My fellow marathoners are a social bunch of accomplished poets, which makes for a supportive and fun environment. And posting my poems on such a public forum sets the bar high for the quality of my work. That means that I’ve have to make some serious time lately—more than usual—to write.
     To keep myself from getting overwhelmed by this project of 30 poems in 30 days, I've cleared my evening schedule and am sticking to a late-night writing regimen. Basically, I took the time when I would normally read before bedtime and turned it into writing time. That’s working well, but two things may make it unsustainable in the long run: 1) It makes me stay up late because writing takes longer than reading, and I’m groggy when I go to work the next day, and 2) I hate, hate, hate routine and figure I’ll get rebellious sooner or later.

What’s a working stiff to do?
This business of making time to write got me thinking about an old conundrum that I often get asked about: How can anyone with a full-time job manage to write and send stuff out and do all the ancillary things a writer needs to do? I’ve worked full time most of my life, and my short answer to this is: I don’t manage. I never feel that I’m writing enough. I’ve got scads of unfinished writing work sitting around—a half-done poetry manuscript, a novel in need of revisions, notes for two or three other novels, blog posts, articles, a nebulous memoir—and it pains me to think I may never have time to get to them all. But I do get to some of them, and the only way I can do that is to guard my evening and weekend time jealously. Luckily, I’m not very social, but I have to make a conscious effort not to book up too many evenings of the week. It’s a bit of a paradox: Social outings provide great material for stories and poems, but by the time I get home from them, I’m too tired to write about them. And the next morning, it’s back to the job—I work as the publications manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a job I’m happy to have but that takes a large amount of energy and brain space, and at least 40 hours a week. And honestly, the job alone makes me too tired to do much writing most nights.
     I got curious about how other writers who work full time tackle this question, so I asked a few writer friends who have busy work lives. Here’s what they have to say on the challenges of finding time to write when you spend eight hours a day in an office.

Pepper Trail works as a forensic ornithologist at the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory and writes regularly for Jefferson Monthly, southern Oregon’s NPR-affiliate magazine. He also serves as a teaching naturalist for tour groups that go to some mighty exotic places. He makes me feel like a slacker; here I am, grumbling about how tennis lessons take up too much writing time, while he’s leading a hiking group across Kamchatka or Patagonia. He says his job provides a lot of material for his writing (five of his poems are here in the fine Cascadia Review). The challenge for him is finding time to revise. He puts it this way:

“I find that my job helps with inspiration, but hinders execution. A significant number of my poems come from my forensic and conservation work, but I feel that I lack the time to make these drafts into the best possible finished work. Of course, this is a convenient excuse, and someday when I retire I will probably find myself no better able to concentrate than I do now. But I look forward to trying!”

That last comment about retiring echoed in my talk with Steve Dieffenbacher, whose latest book, The Sky Is a Bird of Sorrow, won a bronze medal for Book of the Year from Foreword Reviews. Steve has had a long career as a newspaper editor, during which he’s had the added challenge of working nights. Steve has moved into semi-retirement this year, but in his full-time days he was remarkably disciplined about finding time to write:

“Writing is a matter of priorities. Working full time, I had to schedule writing at the same time every day, like an exercise regimen, or I wouldn’t do it. Since I worked nights, I wrote an hour or two every morning just after my coffee because that’s when my creative energies are at their height. Then I’d take my daily walk. I’d supplement the weekday writing with an hour or two of editing the week’s output on Saturday or Sunday, usually in the evenings when I’m at my most relaxed and receptive.”

But Steve added that semi-retirement has presented its own challenges, echoing Pepper’s comment. “These days,” Steve says, “I find it harder to write than when I was working for 40 hours (or more) a week. Somehow the part-time schedule throws me off balance, and I can’t get a rhythm going.” He added that, as with most transitions, it will probably take a while to figure out a new regimen. 

Connie Post is some kind of human dynamo. This former poet laureate of Livermore, California, does more readings in a month than I do in a year. She recently released a well-received book titled Floodwater, organizes Crockett’s popular Valona Deli reading series, is a generous and prolific social media maven, and has kept up this pace for years while holding down a full-time job as a materials manager for a manufacturing company. I asked Connie how in the world she finds any time to write in her busy life. I mean, she’s got to sleep sometime. She says:

“I have poetic thoughts and moments throughout the day, even when I am at work or in the car or brushing my teeth. When the images or ideas finally start to congeal, I find a way to get to a notepad or the computer and at least write the core of the poem down. It’s like being dizzy—you have to stop and slow down and, if necessary, breathe into a paper bag. Stop and listen to what the world is saying.”

You just have to…
Of course, there’s no verdict here. As with religion, no one method works for everyone who spends 40 hours a week working for the man. I’m still searching for ways to fit the writing life around my job (or vice versa), ways to sit down and produce more poems/stories/novels/runaway nonfiction bestsellers without riling my inner teenager, who will walk out in the middle of all that regimentation and head for the beach. But I’m inspired by my fellow worker/writers, whose main message seems to be a Nike-esque “You just have to do it.”

Office photo by Karen Apricot.