Category Archives: Writing and Reading

Entries about the art and craft of writing and commentaries or reviews of stuff I read

As a Result of Maintaining a Regular Blog…

mandala-tree-of-life

I have found a book.  It just appeared there. I wasn’t intentionally writing a book. I was just blogging. One day I decided to look closely at a pattern I saw emerging (among many patterns), and there I found a book! I found a book of poems, needing revision, sure, but almost fully formed, a book of poems about teaching, written in partially shitty rough drafts over a four year stint of keeping up a regular blog and publishing those shitty rough drafts during the course of National Poetry Writing Month and beyond.

It strikes me as a bit unorthodox. Maybe I’ve mentioned this conundrum before, but I’m a fiction writer, a fiction writer who does not write fiction on his blog site, but instead, writes poems and essays. I know most serious poets, or at least, most serious poets that I know, do not write poems on their blog sites, do not publish poems in that realm as they occur to them. That’s just not what serious poets do (whatever that means). I guess it means that serious poets typically draft and revise and revise and revise until they are happy enough to send out a poem. They keep doing this. Eventually, a number of their poems are published in lit mags, and maybe simultaneously or concurrently or subsequently they discover they have enough poetry for a manuscript. They assemble a book and ship that baby off to poetry presses. Or they go through a similar process while knowing ahead of the game that they are working toward some conceptual continuity. I just kept writing and posting poems, and four years later, I look back and find this cache of poems about teaching, most of which I kind of like, and most of which form a nice little arch that will neatly work in collection together as a bonafide book!

One could read all of those poems here. But my feeling about this is that when they are together in sequence, and after they’ve been polished up, they’ll be better. I’m going to immediately go out and try to find homes for some of them, compile my favorites, and make a manuscript. Maybe by the time fall rolls around they will have found their way out into the world. I’ll see what bites. Wish me luck.

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#278: When I Was Away, Before I Was Born, I Have Never Been


I attended a writing workshop last weekend taught by the Oregon Poet Laureate Emeritus Paulann Petersen where I was asked to participate in a generative process very much unlike the process I am used to in my own creative work. It was a very particular kind of brainstorm activity she called “priming.” Now, as a teacher of writing, I ask my students to brainstorm often–but it typically takes a pretty simple or mundane form: freewriting, listing, word mapping, that sort of thing. And I will often do that with them to generate pieces of my own–right along with my students. But left to my own devices, (true confession) I most often skip the brainstorm/priming process altogether. I dive in feet or head first and swim. My brainstorming occurs simultaneously with composition; I storm as I create–in both fiction and in poetry.

So my contribution to day 26 is the result of the brainstorming or “priming” activity Paulanne led us through last Saturday. Different from conventional brainstorming in its specificity, we folded a single piece of paper into three equal columns, and, based on some guided instruction for each of those three columns, we primed ourselves for a poem. With no instructions about how we might tie these things together, we were asked to head each column with the specific name of a place we knew well, to record details of those places in their respective columns, and then add details about what might be happening in those places in our absence. Additionally, and quite discursively, we chose three concrete nouns from lists, a list of words from Szymborska, a list of words from Neruda, or a list of Nature words. We took further notes on what might be happening to or with those nouns, again, in our absence. So, to conclude the longest poem preample in the history of poem preambles, this is what I used for source material, the notes for which are in the photo above. It’s interesting to me what made the cut and what did not:

  • Lewis and Clark College
  • Champoeg State Park
  • The house I grew up in
  • Séance
  • Ancestors
  • Campfire

And here’s the poem:

While I Was Away, Before I Was Born, I Have Never Been

I
While I was away,
strangers moved into the house
I grew up in,
put a garage in the backyard
over the gaping hole where we
used to splash happily inside
the swimming pool. He’s there
now, this neighbor, inside his new garage,
a stranger to me, using a handsaw
to shape oak boards into
another new thing.
I walk by there, trying to
remember. I don’t wave.

II
Before I was born
my uncle Cecil graduated
from Lewis and Clark College
28 years before I would arrive there
on that transformed campus,
still bursting with old fir,
graced by the manor house,
the rose garden, views of the
Portland skyline and Mt. Hood,
but a different school nonetheless,
to be transformed again another
28 years later, and still later,
perhaps for my son, William
Stafford’s voice ringing on and on
inside the library.

III
I have never been
inside the circle at a séance,
whispering to the dead, burning
candles to light their way,
lavendar, or maybe vanilla,
because the dead like
the sweet stuff, are put off by
campfires, smoldering coals, ash—
the fires that burn
long after I’ve fallen asleep,
long after I’ve already gone.

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#257: What’s Hidden In This Poem

fish eye shot of cow455010

I have
poet friends
who hate
poems about
writing poetry
and I think
that’s all right,
they can go ahead
and hate that,
but poets
will continue
to write poems
about writing poetry
until the cows
come home
and even after
the cows come
home because
cows don’t give
a shit, I mean
they understand
that poetry is
what a poet does
in the way that
cooking is what
a chef does and
a cow would
never tell a
chef that maybe
they should move
on from food,
you know, expand
their horizons,
no, that’s just
ludicrous. What’s
hidden in this
poem is hidden
so well that
you will never
find it so don’t
even bother
looking and
isn’t everything
somehow about
what it is?

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#245: The First Poem Written at the End of Spring Break

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Here we go, full steam ahead, into my fourth consecutive year of celebrating National Poetry Month by writing a poem on every single day of April. If you are new to these parts, you might be wondering about the number in the title, in this particular case, #245. I’ve participated so far in three years of napowrimo in a row, but I’ve been known on many occasions to write a poem outside of April, and early on I decided to number all my poems, mostly, to distinguish them on the blogsite from other kinds of writing, but at first, initially, to indicate a number for each day of my first month. In three years time, yup, I have written 245 poems. Are they any good? Who knows. I do what I do and napowrimo provides the yearly inspiration to do more of what I do. That’s all.

I have a great fondness for the organizational hub of the National Poetry Writing Month website, curated by Maureen Thorson. During the month of April I visit it religiously every day. I find there wonderful links to poets and their poems, interviews with poets about their poems, cool international poems or poems in translation, but most instructively, I find there a prompt for every day’s writing. Sometimes I follow the prompt, sometimes I don’t. I always feel free to do whatever I want; there is no rule that prompts must be followed. They are there just in case I need assistance, and sometimes I need assistance.

Today, for example. Assistance, please. Our very first prompt is to write a poem in the manner or style of Kay Ryan, former poet laureate of the United States of America, known for her tight, skinny lines, a penchant for humor, malapropism, a touch of surrealism, philosophy, and a curious use of internal rhyme, that is, a rhyme that doesn’t fall at the end of a line where one might expect to find it. If you’d like to see an example, here’s the link that Maureen provided on the napowrimo website: “All Your Horses” by Kay Ryan.

As I write this sentence, I haven’t even begun to write my first poem, so I don’t have a clue about what will follow.

The First Poem Written at the End of Spring Break

Say you hate
the phone
but brought
the phone home
or you found
good reason
to buy a new
truck. You worry
about desire,
a fire that’s
difficult to douse,
never seems
to go out. All
right, put the dogs
in the yard
and hope
they come back.
The fact: you burned
through a tank
of gas but didn’t
go anywhere.

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Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

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Last year, I remember talking in my classroom about the terrible news, the deaths of two British cultural icons, both personal heroes of mine, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both dead at 69. And from that discussion, this has remained in my memory: a student actually said these words to me, “So you’ve got about twenty more years to live, then.” Even though I probably should have been, I was not offended and I laughed the comment off, even sort of went along with the gag. Sure. That may be true. At 69, I too, might shuffle off this mortal coil–that is, if I get sick, or if I have some terrible accident. I don’t plan to do either of those things, but, as I understand it, these kinds of things aren’t really planned.  So, whether it’s likely or not that I’ll only live another 20 years or less, the deaths of David Bowie, and days later, Alan Rickman moved me to a surprising degree, and got me thinking, as I am still thinking, thinking seriously, about mortality and impermanence, about living a life, and about what might be learned about dying from the passing of these two giants.

My youth, as is true for most all of us, was punctuated by the deaths of celebrities. The ones I paid closest attention to were the deaths of musicians. Elvis. John Lennon. Bon Scott. These are the ones that come immediately to mind. And I know, that as a young person, these deaths shook me, saddened me, especially because all three of them were tragic, senseless, preventable. But I moved on, as young people do, and things would return pretty much back to normal for a long long time. The deaths of people I know, mostly family, mostly well into their 80’s when they died, stay with me in my vivid memories of them tied directly to experience. My father died at 83, 7 years ago now, after a year long recovery from a cardiac arrest, and while I mourned his death more deeply than any other, my memories of him are a constant presence for me. I feel him with me all the time, most powerfully, sometimes happily and sometimes not, in the ways that I realize I am so much like him, in the various and spooky ways I feel I AM him or have become him. With Bowie and Rickman I have no genetic connection, but insofar as their work has been with me off and on for 30 or 40 years, they too, feel like family; they too, feel like a part of my genetic make-up. As I am my Dad, I am also Bowie and Rickman.

In a way, especially for musicians and actors and writers, they remain very much alive: we have a tangible record of their artistic lives and we can revisit that record over and over again on our turntables, our televisions or computers, in our libraries, and in our memories.  My dad left no recordings. He left no writings, or at least I don’t think he did. He left me his wedding ring. He left me two brothers and a sister, he left me half of my own genetic self and 45 years of example through his parenting and husbanding. So while I can keep Bowie and Rickman spinning in the exterior world, my father must remain inside. But all of it will be with me so long as I can operate the audio-visual equipment in my house and the audio-visual equipment inside my head. I’m going to try my best to keep both in working condition past my own 69 years.

And finally, in our current state of affairs, culturally and politically in this United States of America in 2017, I feel more than ever a deep need to keep exposing myself to and attempting to create the ineffable, the deathless, the lasting, humanizing record in art of our existence. I feel now a kind of urgent need to listen to more music, make more music, write more poems and stories, to read more, and to live more deeply in the world. Bowie made music until the end. Rickman made films until the end. My friend Carlen Arnett kept contributing her art until the very end. I hope I can do as much in my own humble way. And so I begin with this little meditation that I have titled after this exquisite and famous poem by Dylan Thomas. I hope you enjoy both.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas1914 – 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

 

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#243: A Poem Composed on a Word Processor about Writing by Hand


I read recently that
handwriting is better
for the brain than
typing, what we call
in this information age
“word processing.”
It’s better, handwriting,
because the task is more
physical, therefore more
complex, therefore more
memorable, theref more
meaningful. Did you notice
how I truncated “therefore”
on purpose so that I could
end the line with the exact
same word in the exact same
spot four lines in a row?
I did that because I was typing.
I could never think to do that
if I was handwriting. However,
I tend to believe what I read
and I believe that handwriting
is better for the brain than
typing.

And yet, I type. I’m typing this
poem right now about the advantages
of handwriting. I have a fantasy
that I will write the first draft
of my next novel entirely by hand
in a nice notebook or a series
of nice notebooks. And I think
I should write poems there as well.
There’s something about typing,
and there’s something about typing
publicly that feels so exposed, so
out there, so vulnerable, that sometimes
I worry about whether or not I’m
telling the truth. This is the truth.
But there’s nothing risky about a
poem on handwriting. And I’d
like to be risky, brave, intimate,
and bold in my writing. There are
things I need to say to myself
that cannot be typed, can only
be handwritten, can only reside,
at least for now, in the white,
neatly lined pages of a nice
notebook, which, in this moment,
remains entirely nice and blank.

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#234: On Rereading a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously
marked in three or four
colors of highlighter and
underlined and bracketed
and annotated with pen and pencil
seven different ways to Sunday.
I’ve read and reread
and reread this novel perhaps
eight or nine times now,
but this time I choose
a clean, elegant copy over
my raggedy-ass classroom
copy and it’s like reading
it for the first time again.
I’m a sucker for fine editions
and could not resist this one.
I can smell the ink.
I can feel the lettering
engraved into the spine
like braille, or like the text
carved into a tombstone.
And my reading this time
is not cluttered by my previous
readings, marked up by
some earlier version of me
who thought he had answers.
I complain sometimes
about the time I lack to
read new work because
I am always rereading to
teach. And yet, with this gem,
I might be happy if it were
the only book I could ever
read until I died.
Every time I read it
I find new things to love
and new reasons to mourn or hope,
and I understand more deeply
how tragic our history,
how tenacious our ghosts,
how all the repair work
in our country that needs doing
(now more than ever before)
springs from this, from this.

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