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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Keeps Me Writing?

What keeps me writing is not something I have much control over.

How would I stop myself from writing? That's more like it.

I have an irrepressible urge to share about the Sombrero Galaxy.

I have a fecundity of impulses to grab a pen and write down "Hot Sexy Baristas!" (I saw it spray-painted on the take-out window of Sweet Shots Espresso, just north of Seattle on Highway 99).

When a student comes to class on the day I'm putting Richard Wilbur's "Junk" on the overhead, and this student happens to know all about Hephaestus, how can I not pay tribute in words, give thanks?

My son told me his favorite color was green. Poem.

My daughter asked me if there was an end to the world. Poem.

I had to interlock my two hands so my husband could climb up to fasten a kestrel nest box to the trunk of a lodgepole pine. One sonnet in a crown.

I taught William Stafford's "Traveling Through the Dark," and my students had a lot to say about whether the speaker did the right thing, pushing a newly-dead doe into a ravine: He should have raced that poor animal straight to the vet!; If it'd been me, I would've drop-kicked it! Poem in progress.

I figure I'm like most poets, most writers. Life happens, so we tell about it. We learn things; we want to share them.

We put words down, not sure where we're going with it. I do as William Stafford told me: I lower my expectations. I try not to think about whether I'm writing a poem or not, or whether what I am writing is "good."

Wanting to write well is what kept me silent for years. I didn't enroll in a poetry workshop until I was 25. 25 years wasted! I'd been writing poems since I was seven. I went through my entire undergrad education without taking a single creative writing course; I was too scared of not being any good.

The urge to communicate happens. The urge to give thanks, give praise, make connections, be surprised, go wild. The urge to connect to the past and the future--to Anaxamander, to my great, great grandchildren.

Where else but in a poem can the clothes on the line be talking to each other?

Where else but in a poem can ex-boyfriends be categorized by sausage type?

Writing gives me permission to be silly, absurd, childish, sarcastic, ironic, grave, witty, ponderous, ambivalent, obfuscating, someone else. Who doesn't want to be some or all of these?

Poems arrive. I get a first line and it won't leave me alone. "In that other universe, I married you . . . " came to me on my way to the gym. More lines kept coming as I swam and sweated. I had no pen, so I had to memorize and repeat over and over the lines in my head. By the time I got home I had a first stanza. (I get a first line, but rarely more than that, without much work. The rest depends. Sometimes the words come easy; sometimes it can take, as they say, years. What keeps me writing: getting what Stephen Dobyn's refers to as "the best words in the best order.")

But back to those first lines. I've been getting them in my head since high school, when I began reading Kurt Vonnegut. I would jot these lines into a journal. (Journaling keeps me writing: I've been writing in one since I was nine.) Vonnegut also taught me to free associate with metaphor.

Vonnegut keeps me writing.

So do Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Sherman Alexie, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg, Basho and Issa, to name a few. Many, many poets keep me writing; they buoy me; they beg me to call back to them, riff on their words, out-do them; they challenge me to tell it the way I see and feel and hear it--to make it new.

Poems come to me in campgrounds, on mountains, in the back seat of a car, and yes, while driving. More often, though, they come to me in the most unpoetic of places. A law office, say, looking at insurance premium tables. At the Table of Losses. There's actually a Table of Losses. How could I not steal that?

I should write less, is the truth. I should exercise more. I should be standing on the steps of the Capitol, demanding equal pay for adjunct faculty. I should be making my nephew, stationed in Afghanistan, a batch of homemade cookies. I should be writing Obama, asking him to please plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. I admire those who put aside their personal concerns and work for the common good. I should be grading papers, filling up my gradebook with little checks and numbers, adding things up. But instead here I am again, in love with how the world falls away as I focus in on the sounds and the syllables, on the rhythms in my head, on everything every poetry teacher has ever taught me, on the sweet and savory English language.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Don't Hate Us Cuz It's Spring

Here in Seattle we endure dampness, wetness, drizzliness, and more shades of gray than a Winslow Homer sky, so don't hate us when we tell you that here in our left corner of the country the daffodils are budding. That the wrens are getting chatty and the robins are feisty.

Okay, so hate us, that's okay too. And while you're hating us, check out the new issue of Poemeleon. This fine issue features Sherman Alexie, David Graham, Charles Harper Webb, Barbara Crooker, and Jessy Randall. Seriously, you need to read Crooker's "Emily Dickinson Goes to Circuit City: A Triptych," like, right now. I've also got a short expose on humor and at least one poem you've never seen before (unless you subscribe to The New Orleans Review). All the ha-haing and gaffawing and elbow tickling will take your mind off the dragging-on-forever winter in your far-off town.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Pinned and Wriggling

Have you seen the poster for this year's National Poetry Month? I found out about it by visiting harriet, The Poetry Foundation blog. Daisy Fried wrote a terrific post about this new poster, and what choosing it says about the state of poetry in America today, or at least perhaps a new trend in how poetry is to be appreciated. Calling the poster "startling, elegant . . . a departure," she explains how posters of the past have presented "scrupulously inclusive" snapshots of poets and/or situations in which the images detracted from the words meant to be celebrated. Also, she states, all of the previous posters featured stink of "Uplifting Messages of Poetical  - Educational Opportunity for the Benighted" (go, Daisy!).  In my experience, I looked forward to receiving my annual poster, but yep, each year's poster bugged me in some minor or major way. My favorite by far (before this year's) was the 2006 collage of poems by the famous. Each morning I would get up and, on the way to the bathroom (the poster was and still is tacked to our bathroom door) say to myself: "Body my house my horse my hound." What better way to start the day? Also, in this poster the WORDS of poetry seemed to be what mattered most (as they should). But last year's poster!? Here we have these humongous hands, reaching out for what? The words "National Poetry Month." Are you joking? Meanwhile, you need a magnifying glass to decipher Jay Wright's beautiful poem in the lower left hand corner. And that's just it! Think of the message we're sending! The poem is in a freaking MOUSE HOLE. Why should the Academy be so quick to put poetry down in the sewer pipes? I mean, how are we really going to turn kids onto poetry if they see it isn't even worthy of being written in a readable font!? Listen, I was one of those kids in high school--very skeptical of poetry. Didn't think I would like it, no thanks and no way. But then I read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. After that, nothing was quite the same. 

Thanks to Paul Sahre and the Academy for entertaining the idea that perhaps poetry, like laughter, can be infectious, can be written or memorized just for the love of it, that someone could be so excited and enthralled by a poem that they just might write it on a fogged up window.