Tag Archives: creativity

#315: On the Penultimate Day of April, the English Teacher in his Penultimate Year Writes a Long Rambling Poem Inspired by Sylvia Plath’s Burst of Productivity in the Months Before She Died

I’m not going anywhere,
but (having lost now both mom and dad)
I notice thoughts about mortality
enter the noggin with more frequency
these days. I’m reading, or rather,
listening to Life Reimagined, where
Barbara Bradley Hagerty argues
essentially that there is really no such
thing as a mid-life crisis for most
mid-lifers. Much of that belief is
myth, she says, and she’s beginning
to share a number of conclusions
she’s come to about how to maximize
the middle. And this, from Sylvia
Plath’s “Crossing the Water.”

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

Rosencrantz comes to mind,
who asks, do you think death could
be like a boat? Guildenstern’s reply is
that death is the ultimate negative, that
one could not NOT be on a boat.

Rosencrantz: I’ve often not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, what you’ve been is not on boats.

While I find these lines hilarious,
don’t ask me to explain what they mean.
I’m on deck, though, with Guildenstern.
Which brings me back to Hagerty’s
meditation on middle age, and back
to Plath, who wrote 67 poems in the last
ten months of her life, some of her best
work, I understand, though I’m no expert.
I love what I’ve read of hers, though,
and I’m sad when I think about her early
death. But she was a force, and I find
this burst of productivity at the end of
her life more inspiring than anything
else, having no reason to expect an
early demise, feeling healthy (give or
take 10 pounds and the discipline
to drink less and exercise more),
and having written 29 poems in
29 days, 315 poems over five years,
in short, I feel hopeful about my middle
and sometimes, manically inspired,
like there’s a bug or a boat or a voice
whose insistent refrain is create, create.
Make poems, make music, tell stories,
read books, walk in the woods, camp
under stars, and stop worrying about
those papers sitting on my desk right
now that need grading. Whether or not
this is in actual fact my penultimate year,
I nevertheless resist working harder
at the finish and instead continuing to
work smarter and better, to ignore the nag,
that other bug, boat, voice, cut-paper
people, those black trees casting a
shadow over all of Canada. I’d like
to go back to Canada. Live there, even.
But that, is truly, a digression.
And I don’t know how to close.
Let’s just optimistically choose
a new color and end with what
Peter Sears called poetry by corruption:

Blue lake, blue boat, three blue, true-blue people.
Why do the blue trees stop to drink here?
Their shadows, blue, sprouting their thick,
green, springtime oak leaves, shout O Canada,
because at the top, Victoria seems only like
a block or two away.

Postscript: Super cool Sylvia Plath website– https://plathpoetryproject.com

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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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A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp on the 40th Anniversary of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College

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The Warren Wilson College Campus 

First of all, I was sick with a cold when at 10:30 pm I boarded the plane for a red-eye from Portland to Atlanta, a nearly five hour flight through most of which I would be sneezing and blowing and stuffing kleenex into my own private trash bag that I kept discreetly stuffed into the storage pocket underneath my tray table, trying desperately not to annoy my seat mate strangers, sitting, as they do these days on planes, practically in my lap. Luckily, it was just a cold at the pinnacle of its heinousness, but even though I had no fever and I was not coughing, I was miserable, unable to sleep, jumping out of my skin, feeling my eardrums likely to burst, miraculously managing through the entire flight to remain in my seat. What was so important that I must suffer so on this cross-continental flight that would eventually land me in Asheville, North Carolina?

I was traveling to Writer’s Camp, the alumni conference of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, held this year on the campus of Warren Wilson College in celebration of the program’s 40th year. Some details about these 6 days are forthcoming, but for now, let me first skip ahead to the inauspicious ending of my journey.

As I had left my phone in the dorm while I was out on the last night of the conference reveling with friends, it began with urgent missed text messages from my lovely wife at 3 am eastern time. She’s wondering where I am and if I’ve missed my flight and why I’m not responding to her texts. And she leaves a voice message that says that she’s called the police to report a possible missing person. I’m puzzled and riled and certain that she has come to the airport one day early.  What I failed to think about, though, in this moment, is why for the love of monkeys would she find on the flight status monitors the correct flight number and arrival time, the ones I had given her earlier that day. Because she did.  So when I arrived this morning at the airport for check-in, the attendant could not find my flight reservations. I was not scheduled to fly!  It was then, nearly a month late, when I took a closer look at the itinerary sent to me by my travel agent. Sure enough, my flight was, in fact, yesterday, and I did, in fact, miss it.

A strange soup of emotions hit me when I realized my mistake. There was a momentary panic as I imagined the expense of a room for the night and a new flight home. And I experienced a deep, forlorn feeling, the kind I felt perhaps as a child realizing I was lost or otherwise in trouble, and kind of a profound sadness, a slight breaking in the heart. There was also a sense of shame, shame that I missed the mistake I should have found the moment the itinerary arrived in the mail, but also shame that I assumed at 3 o’clock in the morning that the mistake was my wife’s and I was angry when I should have been sorry, sorry for her inconvenience and sorry for her and my son’s fearful, somewhat traumatized response to the possibility that something had gone horribly wrong with my return journey. All these things made seismic impressions in my sleepy brain, but they moved through me more quickly than it took you to read this paragraph. Wonder of wonders, I did not get angry, I did not beat myself up. I simply called the helpline for Delta Air and within minutes I had a new flight plan for tomorrow and NO additional charges!

I was curious about why I did not lose my shit. I am prone, somewhat, to losing my shit when I make significant mistakes or am seriously inconvenienced or put out. Uncharacteristic cursing generally ensues. I did none of that. I wondered why. Could it be that I had just spent six days with some of the most talented, interesting, gifted, generous and kind people I have ever known? Yes. Could it be that, even though I was sad that many of my closest friends could not be there, others of my closest friends were there, and new people were there, people who I have never met who nevertheless, in one quick week, became fast friends, equally beloved. Yes. Could it be that over the last week I had felt nearly pummeled by blessings bestowed upon me by this singular alumni conference and the program that birthed it? Yes. Could it be that, even though the dorms were shitty, even though the pillows were made from some plastic composite, even though the scrambled eggs were runny, and even though the coffee was essentially just brown water, the classes were stimulating and thoughtful, the readings were magnificent, the conversations were serious and hilarious, the workshops rigorous and respectful? Yes. Could it be that over the last week I have been free, completely free, and inspired to write, and that I came pretty close to a complete draft of my new novella? Yes. Could it be that on six consecutive mornings, I meditated outside at 7 in the morning with a group of my writer friends? Yes.  Could it be that I have danced like a madman, that I have been to Snake Lake and looked up in silence at brilliant stars, that I have met the students currently enrolled and arriving for their residency and found them beautiful and funny and smart and kind, that I have seen and spoken to some dear teachers that I have not seen in 20 years, that I have seen pigs sleeping in their pens, snoring like pigs, and that I have missed my flight and gained several more hours to write? Yes, I said, yes, it is yes.

Dance

This is where we danced.

Write

This is where I wrote fiction.

Nap

This is where I took naps.

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A view from where I was writing and napping in the library.

Meditate

This is where we meditated.

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My friends Dale, Catherine, and Jeff at Snake Lake!

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This is where we read and attended classes. This is my new friend Ross teaching his class on “Strangeness.” This is the guy who showed me the stars at Snake Lake and the pigs in the piggery. He also helped Peter coordinate and run the conference.

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This is the building where, 19 years ago, René and I stayed on campus during my last residency so that she could attend my reading and my graduation.

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#186: On Writing Retreat

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On Writing Retreat,
December 5, 2015, L. L. Stub Stewart State Park, Buxton, Oregon

It’s raining so hard here,
it would be unthinkable
to go outside for a walk.
So I am stuck in this cabin
without internet access
and there’s only a few
things to do: listen to
music, meditate, read,
eat, or, the thing that I
have come here intentionally
to do, write. I am writing.
I will break now and then
to listen, breathe, read
from the one book I brought,
Labyrinths by Borges,
grab a bite to eat, and at
night, I will drink some
wine and write straight
through until I can’t do it
anymore. There’s no one
to talk to. My neighbors
in other cabins stick to
themselves and I rarely
see them. I am happy to
be able to stand myself,
to be in my own company
and not feel bereft or alone.
That’s a good sign, I think.
And on retreat I find
the necessary and absolute
lack of distraction and
freedom from responsibility
to be the crucial
ingredients that make it
possible for me to really
come to the page, to be
present with language
and thought in a way I can
never be or rarely be
in the routine of the
day to day. So here,
on a cliff that looks out
on to the mountain range
that separates the Willamette
Valley from the Oregon Coast,
in Buxton (a town in my
own state I never knew existed),
half way between Banks and
Vernonia, I forget about the
difficulty of getting here, and
I write about work,
I look into my new novel,
plan a course of reentry after
a months-long absence,
and I write this poem
in praise of solitude, in
thankfulness to my beloved
who made it possible,
and in wonder at having
another 24 new hours
to myself .

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Forced Creativity Experiences (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)

April concludes and the new month begins with my successful participation in the National Poetry Month challenge of writing a poem a day for 30 days.  I’m happy to say that I missed not a single day and that all 30 poems are posted here at michaeljarmer.com for your reading pleasure.  I thought I would take a few moments here at the end of that process to take stock, to reflect on some key observations, and to speak generally about the strategy of these kinds of Forced Creativity Experiences, the good, bad, and the ugly.

Mostly, it’s good.  If there is a creative thing one wishes to be doing and one is in constant turmoil about  NOT doing that thing enough or at all, a Forced Creativity Experience is a good strategy.  I think National Novel Writing Month in November and National Poetry Writing Month in April are simply about kickstarting that impulse.  And, it seems to me, only four conditions are required. First, a desire to do the thing.  Second, an invitation from the universe to do that thing.  Third, a specific but intensive goal around the thing–to be accomplished over a short period of time. And four, a supportive community in which to do the thing.

NaPoWriMo is not the only Forced Creativity Experience I have encountered or participated in.  On the music front, my wife (my songwriting partner) and I have participated since 2004 in a kind of power-songwriting circle called Veronica Lodge, wherein we commit a single day of each month of the year to writing, recording, and mixing SIX new tunes. Six new tunes in a single day, once a month, since 2004 has yielded us over 500 new songs.  Before our participation in this Forced Creativity Experience, we would have been lucky to write ten new songs in a single year.   And becoming parents in 2005 was likely to inhibit our output even further. This thing worked wonders for us.  Desire + Invitation + Specific goal over short period + Supportive Community.

Anyone who ever takes a creative writing class because they want to is having such an experience–and as a young English major I took as many of those babies as my schedule and my degree would allow.  And, too, anyone who goes into a writing program of any kind is also willingly participating in a Forced Creativity Experience–and that impulse got me motivated to enroll and finish an MFA program in fiction writing.  But these things cost a lot of money, and then once the classes are over and a degree is won  –then what?  Especially when the rigors of a career and family life take hold–how does one find the motivation and time to write?  And for those of us who are similarly compelled, what are the consequences of not writing? Writer’s Groups can work for a time. I’ve been involved in a few–all of which forced out some productivity, but all of which fizzled eventually–some after a pretty good run, others not so much. I think Writer’s Groups often fizzle because they lack perhaps that third criteria that I have arbitrarily invented–they lack specific and intensive goals and they tend to go on and on and on.

Only recently have I become aware of such a thing as the November National Novel Writing Month or the poetry equivalent in April. These are both wonderful developments–but as much as I would like to be able to write a complete draft of a novel in a single month–I could not see how it would be possible to write 2.000 words every day for thirty days. I’ve got some fathering and husbanding to do, and my part of the housework to finish, and a full time job, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  It’s just not in the cards, especially in November, for crying out loud. But poetry! (and again, I don’t want to offend my friends who are serious poets, because I have a hunch that they work a hell of a lot longer and harder on their craft than I worked on my 30 little poems). Poetry can be written daily–poems can be finished, or at least drafted, in a single sitting.

Six songs, or 2,000 words, or a single poem.  Whatever floats your boat; all of these activities designed to enhance creative output have these things in common: they depend on a desire for productivity, they come with a kind of public invitation, they have a specific, intensive, time sensitive goal attached to them, and they all, perhaps most impressively, surround the participant in a supportive community of others who are engaged in the same process.

I’d like to close with some comments about this supportive community.  Unlike in a class, or in a program or workshop, where conflicting pedagogies, artistic temperaments, and pure ego can sometimes get in the way or undermine creativity and confidence, I find that in our songwriting circle and in my NaPoWriMo experience, it is never about receiving “feedback” or “critique” or even the euphemism of “contructive criticism.”  It is only about encouragement along the way and celebration in the face of completing the task.  It’s just a big ol’ love fest.  And it frees people up to do what they need to do, to make their art without fear and without thought of pleasing others or reaching some critical acceptance or approval.  I don’t mean to say that critique is never valuable–only that during the initial creative process of making new stuff, it’s detrimental. What we need instead is a space to work, some cheering from the sidelines, and at the end, after our 30 poems or 6 songs or draft of a novel, some appreciative nods and smiles.  Maybe a thumbs up.

I realize I haven’t said anything about the bad or the ugly side of a Forced Creativity Experience.  Maybe that’s a question for a future blog entry–but right now, even though I could probably think of a couple items, I’m tired, happy, and last night’s episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report await me somewhere in cyberspace.

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#30: The Last Poem of April

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The Last Poem of April

April was only cruel in that it exacted from me
31 poems, whether I liked it or not,
but mostly, truth be told, I liked it,
and I moved freely and by choice
through the month, writing a poem
every day until today,
the day on which I write
the last poem of April.

I wrote, in no particular order,
of foolish pranks, a dead squirrel,
presidential fibbers and performance poetry.
I wrote about self censorship and then
I wrote a poem I did not publish
about having a thing for women’s shoes.
I wrote about drumming, drinking beer, taking it easy,
mowing the lawn and surfing the web.
I wrote about teenagers and teachers
reading Ancient Chinese poetry,
Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allan Poe.
I wrote about perfect days gone bad,
make believe encounters on monkey bars,
the owls against the Cyclops,
my mother, my son, my rejection
of Christianity and my admiration for Buddhism.
And finally, I wrote about writing about all of these things.

In conclusion, I wrote 31 poems and published 30
of them in a single month and I would do it again.
I can’t say that I became a better poet,
only that I did a thing that I wanted to do
and was motivated to follow through simply
because April is, for some reason, the month
of poetry (nothing cruel about that),
and because I saw a blog-thing about
writing a poem a day for each of the 30 days.
No one held a gun to my head, no one harassed me,
no one checked in to see if I was being honest,
no one gave me a grade or a cookie,
but there were visitors, some friends,
mostly strangers, who came to read and were silent
or they liked it or they followed it, mostly without comment,
only an occasional blip, two, or three in my stats.
But that was enough to keep me going
and I feel a deep gratitude for them all.

Poets don’t ask for much, it seems–
a reader or two, a blip in their stats,
a kind word here and there,
and a helpful suggestion strategically placed
on a website some good writer-person
set up for the occasion.  That’s all.
A little encouragement could be habit forming
and who knows, somewhere some poet
will write a poem a day for an entire year.
Look at all those poems lined up side by side!
How many times could we get to the moon and back with our poems?

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