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.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Tupelo Press 30/30 Project, Day 4:
On the Nature of Wallflowers

I’m four days into the Tupelo Press 30/30 poem-a-day writing marathon. Four poems down; twenty-six to go. (Yikes—wish I hadn’t said that.)
  One thing that this well-organized marathon provides is instant camaraderie. Already, we nine July poets have our own “secret” Facebook page, and a lot of good-natured conversation is getting swapped around. They’re skilled poets and witty Facebook buds, and I’m having a good time.
  But it’s early days and, as with so many other poem-a-day groups, I feel a tinge of awkwardness mixed with the camaraderie. Inevitably in these things, as the compliments and comments begin to fly, I always worry that we’ll leave someone out, or that I’ll praise someone’s work too much (because it really kicks ass) and short-shrift* someone else without realizing it. We writers are a sensitive lot—but, you know, we humans are a sensitive lot.
  Of course, the short-shrift phenomenon doesn’t just happen in poetry marathons. Certain groups seem to have a built-in mechanism for producing wallflowers. At a dance, for instance, crowd dynamics usually dictate that a few people won’t get asked to dance, or at least not right away. And it’s not like they can’t dance or anything; they’re perfectly good people, fully realized and talented (though maybe the neon socks were a bad choice). For whatever reason, the school of fish shifts away, and a few people end up alone. I laugh as I write this, because that was so often me, standing there in my new purple dress and swaying alone to “Colour My World,” trying to look like it was no big deal that the rest of eighth grade was dancing without me in a slow-moving, impenetrable whirlpool.
  So maybe that dance trauma is what’s at the back of my mind when I worry about inadvertently making someone into a wallflower, or becoming one myself—good God, I’m standing here again, studying my empty Dixie cup! But now I’ve been to a lot of dances—ones where I was the belle of the ball, and others where I was that shy and awkward girl—and I see that it’s all a pretty arbitrary business.
  Which is a long way of saying: Here’s to you, fellow marathoners. I think you all are dynamite dancers.

* I always thought “short shrift” had something to do with short-sheeting, that old campground prank. Wrong: Its original meaning was much more grave, something to do with “little time between condemnation and execution.”