November 4, 2018

Natasha Tretheway

Natasha Tretheway served as U.S. Poet Laureate. In this video, filmed at her writing studio, she describes how poetry has allowed for the expression of her own personal layers of history, place and tragedy, and how truth and healing can come from the creative act.


November 1, 2018

Organizing a Poetry Manuscript

How do you organize a collection of poems into a book?  Lately, I've been intrigued by the idea of treating the collection as an essay.  My last book, Night Train Red Dust, reflects portraits of people on the Iron Range, the workers, union organizers, immigrants, and women who created the rich culture and left a legacy of progressivism and active citizenship.  This collection had poems all connected by place.

The answer to the question of organization is unique to every poet. In Poets & Writers, "Thinking Like an Editor," April Ossman says:
...I reread the poems, listing each one’s themes and subjects, as well as noting repeated words or images. We all repeat ourselves, but some of us do so more obsessively than others, and that can be a strength or a weakness—or both. Next, I separate the poems into piles based on theme or subject, count the number of pages in each pile and note how many of the strongest poems landed in each, and use that information as one of multiple guides to a successful ordering strategy.
Poet Albert Rios published a list of strategies, including links of colors or smell, spiral structures, and last line/first line dialogues. See his suggestions at
http://www.public.asu.edu/~aarios/resourcebank/02mssintofirstbook/page3.html 

Here's a recent article and interview of four successful poets talking about organizing their work:
https://chireviewofbooks.com/2018/11/01/how-do-poets-organize-a-collection/

One of the poets in this article, A.E. Stallings, says,
In my three previous collections (Archaic Smile, Hapax, and Olives), I employed the convention, and convenience, of sections to organize them. Conventions are conventions for a reason; I don’t write programmatic books, and it’s a way of making little arcs while suggesting a bigger one. But it wasn’t going to work for Like. This book was longer, shaggier, it contained longer poems and cycles. I wanted to try something different.
If you haven't yet read her work, I suggest buying every volume. She's a master at her craft, and all these poets have valuable insight to this most challenging task.

October 19, 2018

Poets at Duluth's All Souls Night with Mary Plaster


Mary Plaster, visual artist and puppet master, is the creator of the large scale puppets, and she is the force behind the annual All Soul's Night in Duluth. It's on Saturday, November 10, 2018 at 4 PM – 9 PM at the Historic Union Depot
506 W Michigan St, Duluth, Minnesota 55802

Poets will be reading at 4 pm in the Underground Theater: Ellie Schoenfeld, Sheila Packa, Michelle Matthees, Julie Gard, Sally Larson, and Rocky Makes Room. 

At All Soul's Night, see the memorial altars created by artists, the giant puppets, music performances, and the burning of bad ideas. The Spin Collective will be performing. This group of women work with fire batons and chains to create mesmerizing and dazzling experiences. For more information, see the Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/events/438888109955964/

The Duluth Playlist on WDSE Channel 8 in Duluth featured an artist's profile and art-news about Mary Plaster and her mixed media art. See it here:

Prose Poems



A prose poem is a hybrid form. It looks like prose, but it uses techniques of poetry: sound patterns, figurative language, and compression.  Unbroken Journal is an online literary magazine that publishes prose poems.
My piece, "Soliloquy," is a biographical story featured in their October 2018 issue, here:
http://unbrokenjournal.com/2018/10/soliloquy/

This is a story about my Finnish immigrant grandmother who couldn't speak English. She wouldn't speak English, my aunt says. The word soliloquy comes from the Latin word solo, which means “to himself,” and loquor that means “I speak.”  I was inspired by watching a beautiful video entitled "Soliloquy," created by Iranian/American Shirin Neshat and exhibited at the Walker Art Museum in 2018.  The installation was a split screen arranged at opposing points in the room, and on each screen a woman gazing, entering doors, ascending stairs, going through the streets. Each was the same woman, in the same Istanbul, but one was contemporary and the other,  ancient. They were facing each other, but not seeing each other.  There was a quality of haunting or being haunted by the future or past. The subject was about place, about spirituality, about culture and gender.

This provoked thoughts of my grandmother and me, she in one language and I in the other. She was rural, and I was not.  Her life seemed traditional and mine, not traditional, and yet we are intimately connected by blood.  We looked at each other's lives, and I thought of hers as unimaginable, impossible. She passed on thirty-five years ago.  I wondered what she would see if she could see me right now.  I wondered what I can see of my small grandsons lives in the future. What would our differences be? What would be our possibilities?

In a description of Shirin Neshat's work at the Tate Museum:
Since the early 1990s she has travelled frequently to Iran, and Soliloquy is a comment on Neshat’s experience of living between two cultures. She has said of the piece, ‘although Soliloquy was not a biographical piece, it is based on my personal experience ... those of us living in a state of the “in between” have certain advantages and disadvantages."
To grow up between two languages and two cultures is a unique experience. I was not able to grasp the second language although its sound and rhythm was and continues to be familiar, continues to evoke the joy of childhood.  The place of between-ness is full of shadows. There is language, and the language is more music than meaning. Things approach but not emerge. There were secrets in the family that my mother and aunts refused to talk about; these secrets are one of the forces in the poem. 


October 4, 2018

In this excerpt from "How Doctors Use Poetry" by Danny Linggonegro 
September 27, 2018:
Researchers have demonstrated with functional magnetic resonance imaging that reciting poetry engages the primary reward circuitry in the brain, called the mesolimbic pathway. So does music—but, the researchers found, poetry elicited a unique response. While the mechanism is unclear, it’s been suggested that poetic, musical, and other nonpharmacologic adjuvant therapies can reduce pain and the use and dosage of opioids.

One randomized clinical trial by researchers at the University of Maranhão studied the effect of passive listening to music or poetry on the pain, depression, and hope scores of 65 adult patients hospitalized in a cancer facility. They found that both types of art therapy produced similar improvements in pain intensity and depression scores. Only poetry, however, increased hope scores. The researchers conjectured that poetry can break the so-called law of silence, according to which talking about one’s perception of illness is taboo. After listening to poems from Linhas Pares by Claudia Quintana, one participant said “I feel calmer when I hear those words. That agony, that sadness passes. They are important words, they show me that I’m not alone.”

Poetry workshops are turning into evidence-based results.

Read the entire article at http://nautil.us/issue/64/the-unseen/how-doctors-use-poetry

September 3, 2018

Need Inspiration?

LSW Panel: “Getting Started”
Oct 6 (Sat) 1-3 pm
The College of Saint Scholastica Science Building Rm 1109
LSW members – free; general public – $5

Join Lake Superior Writers on October 6th for “Getting Started,” a panel combining the wisdom of published poets, and fiction and nonfiction writers. Sheila PackaNaomi MuschBob “Astro Bob” King, and Emily Stone will describe their process for getting started, and offer a variety of prompts for you to jumpstart your own new projects. Come ready to learn and try some new techniques – you might start a surprising new enterprise!

July 11, 2018

Revision: Nails, Stitches, Stories


This is a story about revision. This is about fixing built things: re-arrangements, adjustments, and alignments.

Last week, a carpenter arrived to build a new set of steps for the front of the house. He had a pile of high quality lumber and good equipment. He did a great job, except the placement didn't look right. The post for the railing somewhat obstructed the flow out of the door, especially if one were to be carrying a couch, for instance.

This was only a matter of inches, but the stairs made everything wrong, even the door and  sidewalk. I contacted the contractor, and he agreed. Relieved that the contractor was on top of it, I tried to imagine the ways that they might move this heavy structure. Would they disassemble the solidly nailed steps? Would they use jacks to lift the stairs? Would they use a winch?  Would there be wheels involved? I had no idea. But I told myself they would know what to do. These were trained professionals with a lot of experience.

At 8:00 am the next day, the carpenter appeared with a helper.  I asked if it was difficult to move a set of stairs. "I have no idea!" they said. I laughed weakly. So. They had never done that mistake before. Oh dear.  Leaving them to their work, I went inside and then I left to run an errand. When I came back, it was done. The stairs were in perfect alignment and they were completely stable. Was it hard? I asked. The answer from the workmen: "No, surprisingly."

The next day, I was sewing a pair of linen pants. This was a very simple pattern for beginners, and I had experience with sewing. I made an adjustment to the pattern to add pockets. This didn't go well. Next, I sewed the front and back leg pieces wrong, and I had to do it over. The whole time, I was thinking about the carpenters. After I fixed the pockets, I moved on to the waistband.  I'd miscalculated and inadvertently shortened the rise.  I had to rip out the stitching and change the seam allowance, tricky because I had already reinforced the stitching four times. I'd spent $40 on the fabric, and it was beginning to look like I'd wasted time and money. At several points in the project, I almost threw the unfinished pants into the back of the closet. But I made myself continue. Suddenly, things came together. I can wear them. They even look professional.

Then I went to my manuscript in progress. I had hoped the stories would spring fully formed and perfect from the moment of inception. They didn't. I laid them out on the work table, my desk, and gazed from the window into the garden, not seeing the garden. The apple blossoms were falling, each leaving a small ovary, and these would soon swell. It did not look all that promising. I had no idea what to do, but this was no reason -- at all -- to quit. The answer will come in the completion.





The Pleasure of the Text

Roland Barthes, in his book The Pleasure of the Text, posits writing as a form of seduction, and his form expresses his content. The book is a profound collection of fragments about pleasures of texts.  In the table of contents, instead of chapter titles or headings, there are key terms.  These are embedded in the paragraph fragments.  The first half of the list of terms are alphabetized and they are paired consecutive page numbers.  Not so random, those fragments. The second half of the list of terms have no page numbers at all, although the terms can be discovered within the book. His page numbers have set up an expectation, and then he interrupted or disrupted the expectation.  This is perhaps an example of what he terms "cruising" the reader. The key words from the second half of the list are in the text, and the reader must discover them. The following phrases express his metaphor: 

...the cohabitation of languages working side by side... 
...there is always a vacillation--I stumble, I err.... 
...it is intermittence...which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing, between two edges...it is this flash itself which seduces.... 
...what happens to the language does not happen to the discourse: what "happens," what "goes away," the seam of the two edges, the interstice of bliss, occurs in the volume of the languages, in the uttering...: not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover...  
The text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro.   
...the word can be erotic on two opposing conditions, both excessive: if it is extravagantly repeated or on the contrary, if it is unexpected, succulent in its newness.... 
...implying a split, a cleavage... 
...text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving: lost in this tissue--this texture--the subject unmakes himself... 
...Pleasure's force of suspension can never be overstated.... 
...the voice, that writing, be as fresh, as supple, lubricated, delicately granular and vibrant as an animal's muzzle...
And certainly, poetry that gives pleasure does all of this. In Barthes' arrangements, positions, and subversions, he revels in language. The book lingers, explores, slows, and penetrates.

Work Cited

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller, Notting Hill Editions, 2012.

May 17, 2018

What I Learned From Teaching Creative Writing



Structured writing exercises and formulas can produce results, but the results aren't useful unless the writer uses their own unique voice.

Fifteen minute writing exercises produce surprising and pleasing results.

Photographs are great prompts. "Write a letter" is a great prompt and useful for teaching how to stay inside a character's voice.

Nouns and verbs provide visual images and action, but adjectives and adjectives provide none.

Decisions about punctuation and syntax might reflect one's writing voice. They also might reflect poor proofreading.

What gets in the way of your work can become your work.

Scenes are the building blocks of essays and fiction. These are made of character and action. The character always wants something, but he or she meets an obstacle. The next action reveals character and advances the plot.

Dialogue should have subtext. It signifies a constant exchange of power that might be romantic, physical, political or social. It communicates conveys conflict, attitudes, and it is shaped by intentions. environment/setting, secrets, objectives, and conflict. Dialogue can provide backstory and relationship dynamics and desire.

Fiction has sometimes been described as conflict: man against man, man against nature, or man against self. There is another way to look at this: fiction is about trouble.

Don't judge a piece of writing too early. It needs time. On the other hand, not much happens without a due date.

Teaching has helped me to articulate my own values and goals as a writer.  Reviewing the basic skills help me be skillful in my own writing. 

Support (encouragement and critique) for writers is essential. Students love to work in pairs or groups and collaborate.

Teaching is a creative act. It takes time and attention. Because the rewards of teaching are more tangible that months or years spent on a novel or new writing project, it's easy to value it more than one's own creative writing.

All the time, I witness people with talent who lack motivation and simply don't do it. I witness people with less facility for writing work hard and create great results.

Doing my own creative writing is the best way for me to stay in touch with the struggle to create a new piece of work. 

Creative writing is an excellent way to prepare for a career in any field.  It gives students practice with project management. Good writing demands deep listening, attentiveness, problem-solving, persistence, originality, and receptiveness to feedback.  When we learn to nurture our own creative projects, we have learned patience. Creative writing teaches us to work hard and make changes. It's a true gift to be able to adapt and respond to challenges.



April 27, 2018

Protest


Protest 
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox


To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance and lust,
The Inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills,
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and child-bearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore do I protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong which holds one rusted link,
Call no land free that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled, slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the Mother bears no burden save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God's soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox(November 5, 1850–October 30, 1919), from her 1914 book Poems of Problems (public domain | public library), written at the peak of the Women’s Suffrage movement and just as WWI was about to erupt.