Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Book of Ideas (and Tom Swifties)

Friends of mine know that I worked for six years at a trivia-book publisher. In fact, they’re a little too familiar with this, since all those years of copyediting stories about strange geological disasters, the building blocks of plastic, and people who died in the bathroom have made me an annoying party guest, the kind of person you wish would hurry up and go lose on Jeopardy.

One thing we did a lot at the trivia publisher was brainstorm ideas for articles and books. This being trivia, the ideas could be pretty much anything, from what makes a submarine float to the origins of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song. And because inspiration strikes at odd hours, I always kept a notebook at home to jot down topics that I thought of while in the shower or washing dishes. I’ve been gone from that job for five years, but I sometimes still leaf through that notebook and wish we’d done some of these topics. For instance, I’d like to read a short, concise article on the Tylenol poisoning scandal that rained down tamper-proof everything on us. Or all the things that follow right- and left-hand rules, like magnetic fields and pole beans and water going down the drain. Or a couple of pages of Fargo movie trivia*.

An occasional feature in the trivia books was Tom Swifties**, puns that play with dialog tags and are kind of an old-fashioned parlor game. We had a great time writing these, and any time I thought of one I jotted it in the notebook. Here’s the last batch I wrote, which didn’t make it into one of the trivia books because I left soon after.

            “I don’t do cocaine,” she snorted.

            “I am not making that dessert again,” she retorted.

            “That’s a Douglas fir, not a spruce,” she opined.

            “My next car will be a Chevy,” she said cavalierly.

            “What if these eggs don’t hatch?” she brooded.

            “I’m losing my hair!” she bawled.

            “That’s some sexy airplane,” she leered.

I see by a quick Google search that I’m not the only person who thought of the “bawled” one. Oh well.

When I started that job, it seemed like the sky was the limit: This was a place where I could learn/edit/write about anything under the sun!*** It was incredibly freeing and fun and inspiring to brainstorm all the time, and to see some of my ideas actually go into print. But, as with most jobs, it was a shit-ton of work, and not always fun. And for various reasons, after a while the work outweighed the fun and it was time to move on. But damn, I still want to know who came up with the “test sound” for the Emergency Broadcast System, and how hourglasses are calibrated, and what organs we can live without.

* For instance, the Hautmans, the rival duck-painting team mentioned in Fargo, are real-life brothers, friends of the Coen brothers who actually paint ducks.

** Tom Swifties are named for the Tom Swift young-adventurer books (1910–present), in which the authors famously went to great pains to avoid the dull dialog tag of “he said.” Instead they incorporated adverbs, stand-in verbs, and elaborate turns of phrase to spice things up. (“‘…he never uses it,’ was the lad's answer.”)

*** Much like this blog. When people ask me why I do this blog, since I don’t get paid for it, I always say it’s because it’s the one place where I can publicly write about anything I damn well please and no one can stop me.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Grieving Large

Railroad-spike art, Ashland, Oregon
Oh, blog world, I have so many half-finished posts almost ready to put up here—posts about poetry chapbooks, and little annoyances that I love, and how differently I view Star Trek now than when I was a teenager.
            But none of them seems appropriate right now. I have the past month stuck in my throat.
            The election just knocked me out. Winded me. Flattened me. And I know I’m not alone. It’s not that I’m surprised that there are racists and white supremacists in this country. And I’m certainly not surprised that the president-elect (ick—hard to say that) is appointing some of them to his cabinet. I guess what surprised me was that so many voters overlooked all that hatemongering and voted for him anyway. People talk about the pendulum of American politics (characterized by one pundit as a wrecking ball) that swings radically one way and then the other, about every eight years. And true, we got Reagan after Carter, and the most objectionable of the Bushes after Clinton, and now we have this mind-boggling situation right after Obama. It’s like an illustration of the saying “We can’t have nice things.”
            And I may sound reasonable right now, but the truth is that I’ve been as depressed this past month as I’ve ever been in my life. On election night, even before things went completely to hell, I was sick to my stomach. Over the next few days I felt like I’d been in a car accident—achy, reeling, and not quite sure what just happened. That, I guess, was the denial phase; I genuinely felt like I was going to wake up any minute and find out it was all a horrible dream. And the dream of waking up from it was a beautiful dream.
            Then I hit a depression phase that was unlike anything I’ve felt since my mother died. I could barely function, and I cried all the time in uncontrollable, heaving sobs that left me wracked and drained. I felt like I had the flu for a few days, and then, while playing in a tennis clinic—running around seemed like such a great thing to do right then—I had an asthma attack, the first I’d had in almost ten years. That depressed me even more—the country was falling apart, and so was my body. Everything was screwed.

A word for this
Somewhere in all that mess, a friend wrote a post on Facebook about the word many of his election-weary friends were using to describe what they were feeling. To his surprise, it wasn’t anger, or even depression. It was grief. And that rang absolutely true for me: I’d been through the denial phase (always the best part of grief—can’t we stay there?), and then depression. Anger was sure to follow. I was sort of looking forward to that.
            This got me thinking about what we lefties are mourning. Of course, there’s the welfare of our planet, and race relations, and the safety of our friends and family who are members of color (and our very selves, for people of color). And I guess I’d still been holding onto a wispy dream that the United States might still sometimes be a champion of human rights. And we’re mourning the reversal of the direction this nation had seemed to be going in—eight years with a black president, gay marriage now a normalized thing, even pot becoming legal in many states. But suddenly, on November 8th, the brakes squealed and all the groceries hit the car floor. Emboldened bigots were out in force, harassing Muslims and people of color in the streets, on BART trains, in department stores. Trump supporters screamed “Who did you vote for?” at random women out the windows of their pickups.* People who didn’t hastily remove their Clinton bumper stickers had their cars keyed in their driveways.
            Civilization. That’s something to mourn.
            And for women, this thing came with a whole other level of grief. We had that dream of a woman president—so close, right there, right in our hands. And as a wonderful bonus, she was set to kick the ass of a guy who reminded us of men we’ve been fending off our whole lives, insensitive creeps we’ve worked for, lived with, been shouted down by, been hit on by in bars, been assaulted by.
            And I was only beginning to get a handle on these losses when I thought of everyone and everything else now at risk: immigrants, people with disabilities, people who could lose their health insurance, the Paris climate agreement, endangered species, wolves, anyone living in the path of an oil pipeline, everyone working on alternatives to destructive energy extraction like fracking and mountaintop removal. And then there are all the federally funded programs, like Social Security and Medicare, the EPA, the NEA, PBS, NPR. Not to mention the Supreme Court.

Grieve, then give
So, OK, grief—you exist. I get it. I get you. And I remember a little of this from the past, from the bad old Reagan-Bush-Bush years. (And part of my grief is whining, “We have to do that again?”) This election was unlike any other, but the muscles I used during those eras are about to get flexed again. And while this one is overwhelming—I mean, where do we start, with so many fronts of battle?—I know that one thing I can start doing right away is voting with my checkbook. There are a lot of great organizations that are in for the fight of their lives, and they all need our help. So here are a few organizations I’ll be supporting in the months ahead. If you have favorites, feel free to add them in the comments.

Earthjustice—The nation’s original and largest nonprofit environmental law organization

Oregon Wild—Supporting Oregon’s Wolves

KS Wild—Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center

ASPCA (because animals always need help)

FOTAS—Friends of the Jackson County Animal Shelter (ditto)

And on a last note, I’ve been concerned about some of us on the left painting Trump supporters with an awfully broad brush. That’s a mistake. I know a number of my friends and relatives voted for Trump, and they aren’t all bigoted, misogynistic, or stupid, not by a long shot. I can’t claim to understand how their dissatisfaction led them to vote for such a person, but I think that simply dividing them into the other camp is just the kind of error that got us here in the first place. So I plan to do a lot of reading on this subject. Here’s a good Washington Post article to start with, about Trump supporters in rural Wisconsin and what life looks like to them.

*This happened to two friends of mine on the street in front of my office.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

August Postcard Poetry Fest 2016 wrap-up

The dust has settled on this year’s August Postcard Poetry Fest. This is the fourth year I’ve done this month-long writing marathon, invented by poets Lana Hechtman Ayers and Paul Nelson, where more than 200 poets around the world write a poem on a postcard each day in August and mail it to another participant. This year I managed to write the full complement of 31 poems/postcards, and I mailed them all before the end of August. I think this is the first time I’ve written a full 31 and sent them on time; in the past I’ve usually had a flakeout or three during the month, or sent 10 cards on September 6th or whenever in a mad rush to catch up. This year I received 32 postcards from writers all over the U.S., and one in the U.K., a vivid array of artwork and poems that lifted my mailbox out of its usual gloom of bills and ads for laser surgery and window-blind cleaning.

Parties vs. poopers
This year the Postcard Fest had a Facebook group. I’m starting to think every project in the world should have one of these; it’s a great way to bond with other people who are doing whatever you’re doing. Even before the postcarding got underway, the Facebook group was buzzing with people posting about how they were gathering their postcards, buying cool stamps*, getting acquainted, and just checking in with daily details of life. This made me feel much more connected to the project than in years past, and as August dawned and the writing and postcard-sending began, I felt more motivated than usual to keep writing poems and mailing them. It was like I knew these people now, and I didn’t want to let them down. It was also like there was this great party going on, and I didn’t want to be the pooper. Keep the party going!, the Facebook group seemed to be saying. Don’t bring down the room.

De-cluttering the card
This year I made my own postcards. Now, when I say that in the context of this Fest, it’s like saying I built my own house, and then showing you a cardboard box with some holes I punched in it. People in the Postcard Fest set the bar high—there are some real artists in this group, for whom the postcard itself is at least as important as the poem they write on it. Some of them construct elaborate works of art, everything from collages to hand-drawn sketches to prints of their own paintings, write poems on the back, and mail them out. I’m not that much of a visual artist; the postcard, for me, is really just a poem-delivery system. In past years I bought touristy cards at local shops; one year, I got a big stack of them from a brewery. But I was often frustrated by how little room there was on them for a poem; with all the photo-captioning and copyright gobbledygook, there was only about a three-inch-square space to write in, sometimes less. This real-estate issue is part of the Postcard Fest challenge, but to me, it was annoying.

So this year I decided to just make my own damn postcards—that way, I could leave a consistently generous space for poem-writing. And I’d just been looking at the Vistaprint site, pricing out some business cards, and I saw they print (among a zillion other things**) postcards at a really good price. I didn’t overthink it; I just found a few photos that I took last summer of various artsy/natural things, and I chose one with a hornet nest that I always liked. I made a PDF of the photo in Photoshop, laid out the back side of the postcard in InDesign and made a PDF out of that (with a big white space for poems), uploaded it, and ordered 50 of them for about $15. The whole process took maybe a half-hour. The package of postcards arrived a few days later, and they looked great—glossy and professional quality, pretty much like what you’d buy in a gift shop. And there was enough room to write about a 14-line poem on the back.

Baking by the batch
Another thing I did differently this year—and this broke the rules a little—was that I wrote the poems in batches. The guidelines for the Fest encourage people to write a poem every day…because it’s, you know, a poem-a-day marathon. And that’s usually great—I love the discipline of this and other marathons like NaPoWriMo and Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project, and I rely on them to generate a lot of new poems in a short time. But during this Fest I discovered something interesting: I seemed to write better poems when I wrote them in batches.

I stumbled across this by accident, right at the start. The guidelines suggested that we write three poems a few days before August 1st and send them out so our first few recipients would start receiving poems at the beginning of August. So I sat down on about July 27th to write three poems and get things started. The first poem—cold start, sputter, cough—took a long time to form in my head, and it came out a little wooden. It wasn’t really a keeper, but that’s OK—the Fest is all about generating first drafts. But the second poem, to my surprise, was better; my poetry engine was warmed up, and the poem slipped out easily and was a lot more interesting. And so was poem #3—it ranged farther off leash and had more natural energy to it than that first, stage-frightened poem. Okay, I thought…maybe writing only one is not the best way to do this. And because postcard poems have to be short enough to fit on the card, writing a batch of them didn’t seem too daunting.

So all through the month, I wrote poems about every three days instead of every day, always in batches. The jury’s out on whether these poems are any better than in years past; I haven’t typed them all up yet (I made photocopies of all the cards I sent), and I’m not even sure what I’ve got there. But I know that I felt excited about some of them, perhaps more than usual. And the “batching” definitely made this marathon feel easier than it usually does—I never got that grumbly-teenager feeling of not wanting to sit down and write. Or if I did, I just didn’t write that night, and wrote an extra poem the next time around. And I had a lot of fun with these poems; somehow, writing batches of them took the pressure off each one. If a couple were duds, maybe others in the batch would come out better. And then I had a couple days off to recharge.

Unexpected conversations
This year I tried to write some poems with a common theme, mixing mythology with cars I’ve known and owned, along with found poems that mashed up car-related public documents in a sort of word blender. I don’t know yet if those poems will ever amount to anything; I have to think more about the structure of that sequence.

But you never know how a series of poems will end up playing off each other, or off other poems that don’t seem related. Last year I wrote a bunch of postcard poems with images of the Rogue River, based on a rafting trip I took when the Rogue Valley was choked with forest-fire smoke. Later I wove several of those poems together with another sequence of poems I’d been working on, and found that they spoke to each other in a way I hadn’t expected, different voices in a conversation I didn’t know my subconscious was having. I made them into a chapbook manuscript called I Am on a River and Cannot Answer, which the wonderful BOAAT Press will be publishing next month as a downloadable PDF book. More on that in a future post.

To find out more about the August Postcard Poetry Fest, visit its web page here.

* One day, yes, I will blog about being a lifelong stamp collector. For now, I’ll just mention that on an episode of The Simpsons, the family’s house was about to burn down, and Lisa went running back to it, yelling “My stamp collection!” The rest of the family stood in silence for a moment, then they all burst out laughing, even Homer. Philatelists—our coolness has not been discovered yet.

** Including phone cases, coffee mugs and…pillows?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

NaPoWriMo 2016: Public, but not too public

It’s almost the end of April, and for those of us who have been writing a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), that means one thing: We’re almost done. And holy crap, are we glad about that.

Bigger is better
This is my sixth or seventh year doing NaPoWriMo, and the past couple of years I’ve set the bar higher by doing the writing marathon with a large group of people on a public internet forum. Writing with a lot of people watching makes me work harder to fish for the right idea and then craft and revise the poem. Not every day’s output is beautiful, but I end up with fewer lazy poems when peer pressure is squashing me a little.
            For last year’s NaPoWriMo I did the Writer’s Digest April Poem-a-Day Challenge. That certainly provided the “large public forum” I was after: A huge community of writers—hundreds—do that challenge every year, and they comment freely and encouragingly on each other’s poems. I enjoyed that a lot, and this year I’m using many of the good daily prompts that WD poetry editor Robert Brewer provides for that group (see “To promptly go” below), but instead of posting my poems there, I’m posting them to a couple of secret Facebook NaPoWriMo groups—one with about 100 members, and another local one with about a dozen, both with some very fine writers. The “secret group” format eliminates the fudgy business of whether a poem that’s posted on a public site/blog is considered published and therefore ineligible for submission to literary journals. And the smaller, more intimate groups make it easier to get to know my fellow marathoners. It’s a good balance of public vs. not-too-public.
            As usual, I’ve had some ups and down with the poem-a-day thing. This year I got off to a painfully cold start; the first few poems felt forced and awkward and probably will never amount to anything usable. Then I hit a good stride; for a few days the poems came out easily, and I was excited to sit down at the end of the day and write them. Hey, I thought, I’ve got the hang of this thing. Then, of course, I stalled out again—more exhausted late nights, trying to make steel out of straw or some other completely inept metaphor. I skipped a couple of days when I was just too tired. (Doing NaPoWriMo during the busiest season at work and the NBA playoffs is, for me, a perfect storm.) Then a few days later I rallied and came up with some more poems I liked. Now, almost at the end, I’ve got maybe 6 poems that I like a lot, and another 5 or 6 that could be OK with heavy revision. That’s not bad for a month’s output. And, as always, some of the poems I like—including a couple of angry ones—are things I never would have written if I hadn’t had to sit my ass down and hit that midnight deadline.

Paper or plastic
This public NaPoWriMo business, strangely enough, has changed one of the most fundamental elements of my poetry writing: I now write a lot more on a keyboard than by hand. I used to be a pen-and-paper purist; I had a whole theory about why hand writing was better than keyboard writing, something about that fraction-of-a-second delay between the thought and the hand writing it down, which served as a first edit and made me choosier about the word or phrase. But during NaPoWriMo, I’m often writing late at night and want to post the poem as soon as it’s (more or less) done. So I just let my fingers fly on the keyboard and cut and paste straight from there. I can type much faster than I can write by hand, and as a result I sometimes end up with breathless, headlong poems without line breaks or punctuation. Sometimes I go back in and add those boundaries afterward; sometimes I don’t. Other times I write purposely in set stanzas or line lengths. The upshot is that I now write in several different styles, some more fragmented and jumbled than others. Whether that’s all for the better or worse, I’m not sure yet. But it’s change and evolution, and that feels good. And during NaPoWriMo there’s another advantage to the keyboard thing: I can just copy the poem from my Word or Pages doc and paste it onto wherever I’m posting it without having to transcribe it out of the notebook. That makes for less work late at night, and my 54-year-old body gives that a big, arthritic thumbs-up.
            But the greatest benefit of NaPoWriMo is still simply the poems. By month’s end I’ll have more than 25 of them, some that excite me and some that don’t yet. Some that never will. But those that do, and those that might, will help fill the well of poems I’ll be working on and sending out and assembling into quirky chapbooks and sequences and I-don’t-know-what-yet for the next year. They’ll be the sketches or the paintings or the…crikey, some metaphor. I’m too tired to think of one. Must … save … metaphor … for next poem.

To promptly go
Doing the Writer’s Digest PAD Challenge last year taught me something I didn’t know: I like writing to prompts. Not always, not every day (my mind likes to go off leash, and my inner wild dog is already riled up about having to write a poem every day), but every day this month I looked at several prompts and picked one to think about for a few hours. And sometimes I used it to write a poem that night. These were my favorite sources for prompts this month:

The original NaPoWriMo siteBack in 2003, poet Maureen Thorson saw what the people over at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) were doing, and she decided to start a similar month-long writing marathon for poetry—and NaPoWriMo was born. Every day in April she posts a prompt, ranging from forms (lune, tritina, fan letter) to subject matter (food, fear, technical terms).

Chris Jarmick’s Poetry Is Everything blogChris’s prompts—some his own, some by guest prompters—have been extremely varied and provocative. Today’s prompt, for example, is to steal words from the NOAA’s National Weather Service Glossary and use them in a poem.

The Found Poetry Review. Each day in April, FPR has featured a prompt by a guest writer. These are fairly complex prompts; April 28th involves taking a piece of source text, eliminating any words that don’t start with A, B, C, D, E, F, or G, and then using an online program to make a piece of music out of what’s left. I loved the imaginativeness of all of these prompts, but I didn’t try a one of them because they were too complicated. I am a lazy promptee; if I even have to click to another page or look something up, I’m out. But I may go back and try some of these when I’m not hustling to cram in a poem every day.

Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides. This is the Writer’s Digest PAD Challenge site I mentioned before. I like Robert’s prompts because they’re often just a word or phrase, which makes them very open-ended: “love or anti-love,” “important,” “set the poem in a food establishment,” “experienced/inexperienced.” These simple prompts were a strategic move on Robert’s part, since, like I said, hundreds of people post poems on that site every day based on the prompt. So if the prompts were too specific, the poems would all sound alike. (Here’s an example of the kind of too-specific prompt I don't like, totally made up: “Take the strongest emotion you felt today and imagine how you would dress it if it were a child.” I would not want to read 400 poems about that. But if you’ve got 400 people writing about “office,” you’ll get a pretty good variety because there are so many different directions you can take.)

Jennifer Givhan. Jenn, a talented poet and editor at Tinderbox, wrote a prompt each day for the “larger” Facebook group I wrote with, which she founded. I won’t put any of them here because I hope she’ll put them together in a book soon. Look for it. They were awesome.