December 30, 2010

Ecstatic Poetry

What is ecstatic poetry?  For examples of ecstatic poetry, I can name names:  Rumi, Kabir, Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rilke, Rimbaud, Ginsberg.  It is poetry that is visionary, reveals spiritual wisdom, crosses beyond ordinary boundaries.  The self dissolves.  The poem is a ladder that the reader climbs.  The poem is a lightning bolt.   

Rilke's poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," ( is an ekphrastic poem, a response to visual art.  The poem grasps not just the art but the god in a sudden flash of beauty.   I consider it an ecstatic poem; at the end, Rilke writes in the final line:  "You must change your life."

In a brilliant flash of light, ecstatic experience changes you.  This is often described as an awakening, like in this Rumi poem (translated by Coleman Barks)

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.

Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill

where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.

Don't go back to sleep.

An ecstatic poem, in my opinion, is an intersection with the divine.  Falling in love is ecstatic; one's vision expands. The poet Anne Carson has an interesting essay about women and ecstatic experience in her book, Decreation.  The essay can be found online at this web address:

This essay was pivotal for me while I was revising the ecstatic poems in Echo and Lightning.   In the poems of Sappho, and in the writings of a 13th century female mystic, and in the writing of Simone Weil, Carson examines the 'dissolving of the self.'    I believe it is the point of profound change for an individual, to leave oneself is to let go of the past, to let go of an investment in one's identity, to let go of attempts at control and enter the present moment.

The ecstatic is best expressed in poetry.  Poetry has its roots in religious ritual; poetry has the immediacy, metaphoric capacity, and compression that best creates the divine flash.

The poet Federico Garcia Lorca gave a lecture about the Duende, a dark spirit that he called before each poetry reading.  It was a spirit close to death and sexuality, he explained, that infused his work with power and beauty. Poetry that can evoke the power of the gods is ecstatic poetry.  To read his lecture, click on this link or paste it in your browser:

Other resources:
  • Women In Praise of the Sacred, edited by Jane Hirschfield (Harper Perennial)
  • Holy Fire - Nine Visionary Poets and the Quest for Enlightenment, edited by Daniel Halpern (Harper Perennial)
  • News of the Universe Poems of Twofold Consciousness, chosen and introduced by Robert Bly (Sierra Books)
  • How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch, Harcourt Press

December 29, 2010

New Work

It's a double-edged sword, seeing one's work into print. Simultaneously, the writer must embrace the text with clarity and purpose to achieve the best re-vision (after all, once published, the work enters a fixed state) and also, at the point of the greatest obsession with detail, let go of it.

Putting a manuscript of poems together is a process unique to each writer. It begins for me in disorganization. Because I reside in individual poems that I write, in order to see the poems as a group, I must pull myself up to achieve and see them in a larger perspective. Not easy. I start by sorting the poems into sets and build sequences. This takes time. It does help that I do regular performance, and each time, must create a set list with a beginning, middle and end. The practice of creating a larger story begins in performance, definitely. The poems are like pieces of a mosaic that I've found will create different stories depending on how they are arranged.

I should add a lot of work happened on a subconscious level.  I'm often working with dream images, and follow an image in and through collaborative projects, visual art, other poets' work.  I write a lot.  I write to process my life experience and to develop my imagination.   In a relationship break-up, I was thinking about "don't look back" and I wrote the poem, "Salt," about me and Lot's Wife.   It is only later that I connect my own poems of experience and imagination with mythic stories.     

The new book, Echo and Lightning, came together out of three well developed sequences. The first was a set of love poems I had called "Fearful Journey." The title is from a poem, "Blindfold." It was an erotic poem exploring Hildegard Bingen's concept of erotic justice, published in The Mother Tongue. This poem was triggered by an invitation to participate in an art exhibit at Northern Prints Gallery. The gallery owner and printmaker Cecelia Lieder, who later published my collection of poems The Mother Tongue, invited me to write poems for this theme. After some contemplation, I realized that the image of blindfold was appropriate for both justice and erotic.  While writing, I begin in image and follow it.    This sequence of poems became the last section of the book.  

The first section of the book is concerned with ecstatic experience, intersection with the divine, cleaving.  Cataclysmic grief and joy.   The set begins in migration and follows the image of flight into the story of Zeus (in the form of the swan) and Leda.  These poems were written over a period of a few years.  I was curious about mystical stories.  I'd found the Gnostic text, Thunder, Perfect Mind.  As a piece of writing, it was electric:  a female God, the intense combination of opposites.   I began contemplating the stories of myth and the Bible: Mary, Mary Magdalene, Lot's Wife.  Each story involved a woman's intersection with the divine.  What happened to her, what did she give up? Because I'd been reading the cosmic story for a solstice celebration, the story of the universe, I was thinking about the origin of the universe, simultaneous creation and destruction.   Finally, the poems followed a sequence of ascension.

The poems in the mid-section of the book I'd recorded on an audio cd with Kathy McTavish.   I called the set "Undertow" because the poems were underwater, submerged.  It was all subconscious.  Curious to me, at first, but then they made sense.  I realized these underwater images fit well after the sequence of ascension. It was the form of a wave, climbing and falling. That overall image was important to the book.  One doesn't have ascension without descent.

It was a stroke of luck to find the book's cover image, a painting called "Dawn" by my friend from Argentina, Cecilia Ramon.   The image perfectly expresses the themes of migration, love, ecstasy, and undertow.

Now, that book is out. I'm working on a new one, Cloud Birds, that will be out in 2011. This one is now under intense scrutiny as I proofread, re-vision, and develop its final form.  Once new work is at this stage, it's time to look ahead to the next project.

I'm generating new poems, playing really.  I am focused, but one must also take writing lightly as new work starts to percolate.  I'm curious and not too attached. I started a twitter account, and have been using it to assign writing prompts.  It's a personal challenge to make an assignment for others and then follow the assignment myself.   All teachers should take up this practice in order to stay humble.  I like to be entering unknown territory, to be exploring images from experience and dream and artistic works I encounter, to discover ways to tap the subconscious mind.   Writing isn't just what I do, it's how I live.

December 9, 2010

The Dragon: Agnes Martin

Creative work can be satisfying, but most often it puts you in touch with the feeling of inadequacy.  In fact, most writers will tell you that they love "having written."  Afterward.  Writing usually presents the challenges of what some people have termed "monkey mind."   The mind offers up all sorts of anxieties, fears, distractions, and difficulty.  The self is one of the great obstacles in writing. 

The visual artist Agnes Martin addressed the feeling of failure in her book Writings (c2005 Hatje Cantz).  The following is from a lecture, "On the Perfection Underlying Life," delivered to art students:     

"Why do we go everywhere searching out works of art and why do we make works of art. The answer is that we are inspired to do some certain thing and we do do it. The difficulty lies in the fact that it may turn out well or it may not turn out well. If it turns out well, we have a tendency to think that we have successfully followed our inspiration and if it does not turn out well, we have a tendency to think that we have lost our inspiration. But that is not true. There is successful work and work that fails but all of it is inspired. I will speak later about successful works of art, but here I want to speak of failures. Failures that should be discarded and completely cut off.
"I have come especially to talk to those among you who recognize these failures. I want particularly to talk to those who recognize all of their failures and feel inadequate and defeated, to those who feel insufficient--short of what is expected or needed. I would like to explain that these feelings are the natural state of mind of the artist, that a sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work." 

In other words, embrace the feeling of inadequacy, defeat and failure and do your work anyway.   
The discipline of work allows one to continue despite the feeling of failure.  She recommends the Chinese sage Chuang Tau's concept of "free and easy wandering."   No attachment.  Let yourself wander. Along with this, she recommends solitude and acknowledges that in solitude one encounters both fear and a self-destructiveness she refers to as "the Dragon."   As an artist, one must strive to become independent of judgment and familiar with the "ways of the Dragon." 

Self knowledge is valuable.  If you know how you subvert your own process or create obstacles for success, you will more likely be able to overcome the destructiveness. Agnes Martin didn't think it was possible to actually slay the Dragon.  For her, it was more a matter of working while it slept.

Talking to other artists and writers will provide encouragement and support.  Also, I learned a good maxim from a writing teacher, Carolyn Forche.  She said, "Whatever gets in the way of your work becomes your work."  In other words, if you find something interfering, then write about that.  It is perhaps one of your important subjects. 

Practice open-mindedness. Maybe you want to write about x, y or z but whenever you sit down, you start writing something else. My advice:  go with it!  Learn to honor the resistance and accept what comes.  Artists and writers often believe that we have very little choice when it comes to our material.  It is given.  Craft and skill come in during the development and final draft.   

Samuel Beckett said: "To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail... failure is his world and to shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living.... "    Like Agnes Martin, Beckett urges the writer to continue on despite failure.  "Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

Artistic work is difficult.  One needs to suspend judgment of the early stages of a project and manage the interruptions and distractions that arrive.  One needs to accept what is given.  One needs to develop writing into a discipline. The practice of meditation may help one develop skills to let go of the mind's chatter and be still.  Walking usually helps.  After reading Agnes Martin, I'm wondering if it might work to create a nice comfortable place for the dragon to sleep.  Sometimes it does work to write or draw the image, to make the intangible manifest.

Another teacher, Kate Green, suggested that we write about the Muse.  This was a writing assignment:  What does the Muse look like?  what does the Muse want?   Where does the Muse want you to write, what sorts of things should there be around you?  In the spirit of "free and easy wandering," you might extend this exploration and find out from the Muse what to do about your personal Dragon.

November 28, 2010

How to Teach a Poetry Workshop

Recently, grants have been available for Community Arts Learning.  This is a wonderful opportunity for artists/writers and members of the community to develop their skills.   The key to successful arts workshops is a lesson plan.    Lesson plans are simple, but they will help the artist stay focused and organize the time so that the experience is productive.  The younger and larger the group, the more essential is structured time.

Here is a sample lesson plan for poetry workshops for children.  This can be adapted for adult learners as well.    Children who are 4th grade and younger developmentally may not grasp the metaphor but they can learn to use sound patterns and the five senses.  

The Lesson Plan for a Children's Poetry Workshop

Age:   grade 4-6 (often it's been about 20+ students)
Time:  1 hour (and it could be 1:15 min)
Goal:   Students will practice poetry and learn to use the 5 senses in description and use  figurative language. 

Materials:   the workshop leader should bring good example poems.  The writing prompts that you plan should relate to these examples. 
It's helpful (preferred but not absolutely necessary) to have another adult in the classroom if you have a large group.  This person can assist with some students' needs (esp if there are special needs kids)--a little one to one coaching. 
Students should have paper and pencils

Introduction to Poetry:

I begin by asking students to tell me what poetry is.    They have interesting answers.  Praise any interesting observations.   I will talk about 5 minutes about what poems are:   they create a picture and sound for the reader.  They can be a story, a list, a letter, a blessing, or a memory.

I'll read an example poem and ask the students to tell me what they noticed about reinforce the definition of a poem.   We will also notice sound elements:  rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, etc.  I point out figurative language and define the word metaphor. 

Practice Poetry:

The goal is to teach students to use the five senses when they write description and to use figurative language.    I approach the project lightly to make it fun.  I give them rules: 1. write fast, 2. don't worry about spelling or punctuation 3. write about what is important to you and 4.  be specific.    Students are writing first drafts.  I tell them not to expect it to be perfect.  We are just going to play with words. (These rules of flow writing are adapted from Natalie Goldberg's book about generating new material, Writing Down the Bones)

Writing Prompts are then used in the classroom.  Each writing exercise is given about 5 minutes for students to write.

Prompt 1.  Metaphor:  Students will hear an example of a persona poem.  (I'll read them a poem I have by John Haines).   They will then be asked to choose an animal and write at least 3 descriptive phrases related using as many of the 5 senses as possible.    Next step:  write the poem.  Begins with "I am....."    The students will be asked to pretend that they are the animal.   They will use the phrases to help them build the poem.  We are looking for a poem of at least 8-10 lines.   

Prompt 2.   Learning how to use specific details.    Students will be asked to write a list of short phrases, specific details, about the area around where they live.    In can be a backyard or a place that they frequently go to play.    Next, students will hear an example of an autobiographical poem called "I Am From" by George Ella Lyon.  This poem is a list poem.   It begins, "I am from clothespins/ from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride./ I am from the dirt under the back porch./ I am from the forsythia bush/ the Dutch elm/ whol long gone limbs I remember/ as if they were my own."      Students will then use their own details to write an autobiographical list poem of their own.

Prompt 3.   Students will use their imagination to  write a poem that begins with one of these prompts:  (often I decide the prompt during class when I learn about their interests or other classroom projects).  I ask them to use a sound element--either rhyme or alliteration.
a journey poem that starts with "If my arms had wings..."  
OR  a list poem of excuses or reasons that starts "Because"   (they are asked to use the word because at least 3 times)
OR   a letter poem that is written from a pet or from a favorite object.

Reading Out Loud:  

After students do 3 writing exercises. I like to offer them an opportunity to read the new poem to the class.  These are all rough drafts, so nobody should expect polished work.  It's "work in progress."   I give some short instructions about posture and breath for the best projection.  Students enjoy sharing their work. I don't force anybody to read.  It should always be volunteered. 

Whenever a student reads, observe the strengths that they have.   "That poem has wonderful vowel sounds," for example.   "That poem uses alliteration.  That poem is a vivid picture.  That poem has a strong beginning or a strong metaphor."    This is essential.  Avoid negative feedback in a short workshop, it will dampen enthusiasm and cause self consciousness.  Avoid laughing at the efforts.  If participants feed judged or self-conscious, they will withdraw their willingness to read rough drafts.  

Reading the work is a fun closure for the poetry workshop.  I help the students read if they need that, and I remind them how to be good listeners.    I often get amazing and great poems from the kids.

Feel free to use or adapt my lesson plan to your own needs.   Each writer/artist should teach from their own strengths.

November 21, 2010

Poetry & Change

Poetry comes of direction and indirection.   In order to write, I need to do a fair amount of staring out the window.  It's helpful to do some mindless tasks like cleaning and laundry.  Somehow the sound of water running into the washing machine helps me find my way to the page.   Dreams help; this morning I climbed out of bed with a phrase delivered to me in my sleep.  Some poems I've written began in just such a way.   Daydreams, reverie, and music help.   Good conversations, reading, and especially walking or yoga help me make the transition from conscious mind to subconscious.  Spending time by the lakeshore or near the river, journaling, writing letters.  In my studio, I find the process of making a fire in the woodstove very conducive.  It is a journey that leads inward.

The process of artistic submersion is similar to the process of planned change.   As a writer, I've learned to invite the meditative state that leads into artistic work.  In the field of social work, research about the process of change reveals a parallel:  a premeditative state, followed by contemplation, preparation, and action.   Now, an evidence based practice (one that has been proven to be effective) called motivational interviewing is used to support and encourage the process of change; the social worker affirms the point in the process, no matter what it is, and discusses the process of change and possible scenarios of changing, or not changing.  Amplifying ambivalence often leads to taking action.  In creative immersion and change, talking about process is so important to help you find your way, your own unique way.

Consider what you do to help you enter into contemplation and preparation.  An artist friend of mine has a strong Buddhist practice.  Meditation, silence and contemplation of the words and writing of teachers has been very helpful to her.   Another friend works in more than one medium; besides writing, she also does visual art and music. 

Writer's blocks are perhaps an earlier stage of the process and can be investigated. Perhaps more contemplation or more preparation is needed.  A block may represent fear or a resistance to change.  The social work response to these two obstacles is acknowledgment and affirmation and then a consideration of how staying stuck affects you in the short and long term.  Practicing respect of the internal and external obstacles is a skillful tactic.  The use of force doesn't work.  Controlling responses don't work.   In artistic counseling, Anne Paris, PhD, suggests three solutions; mirroring (finding somebody to reflect on your work with you), eliciting creative work in relation to a hero that you have (another writer or artist), and working with peers.  These relationships with others help us stay connected to the source of our own inspiration.   

In the action of creating something new, we must stretch and rise in ways not otherwise called for.  Consider the language we use for such experiences; we say a person is consumed by their work.   At times, I've been consumed by writing and afterwards, I was not the same.   Artists are perhaps marked by their changefulness, like Merce Cunningham.   We are willing to enter in again and again, to create something new.   And of this new beginning, the artist or writer creates an experience with a beginning, middle and end.

Each new work has a different constellation or different set of principles, in order to engage with it, an artist or writer has to let go of the past.  What has worked before might not be what works in the new project.   Adjustments are needed.   Perhaps this is also what Rilke meant in his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo:  " must change your life." (To read this poem and poet Mark Doty's critical analysis of it, click on this link

Besides writing, I work with people who are affected by mental illness and I help facilitate recovery.   Once I had the opportunity to attend the Creativity and Madness Conference in Sante Fe, New Mexico.  It is a conference that examines the psychology of art and artists.   Many artists have transformed very difficult life experience and mental illness into astonishing artistic achievement.   (

The artistic process engages us with the process of change in a very intimate and personal way.    Not only does creative work relax and help us feel centered, it is a profound act of change in the world.  We all know you can't change anybody else; it is possible to change oneself (and that is difficult enough).  Creative work allows us to make small alterations in the patterns of the self, allows us to follow an image through to a completed work, and sets in motion a beginning that reaches farther than we realize.

Arts learning is so important.  The wisdom we gain from working artistically is valuable.  Artists can help others learn how to overcome obstacles, especially the difficult obstacles that one's own self can erect during the process of change.  Music programs, theater departments, art departments, and creative writing classes not only help students improve their math scores; they give an individual an important tool that might save him or her, and maybe the world.

If you are interested in artistic process, check out this book by Anne Paris, PhD: Standing at Water's Edge: Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion (New World Library, c2008)  If you want to know about the change process and motivational interviewing, read Miller, William R. & Rollnick, Stephen. (2 edition) Motivational Interviewing:  Preparing People For Change . New York:  Guildford Press (2002).

November 9, 2010

How to Revise Poems

Re-vision is an opportunity to come to the emerging work with attention and deliberation.   The rough draft will reveal things to the attentive writer about how to best develop and hone the poem.  No rules are hard and fast; these are simply guidelines.   The goal at the end of revision is to have every element of the poem (the voice, the images, the metaphor, the word choice, the punctuation, the line and stanza breaks) all choices that have been made for the best possible effect.

Paul Valery wrote that the language of prose is meant to fall away once the meaning is delivered.  In a poem, the language is a physiological device that recreates the breath of the writer in the reader.   Each time the poem is read, the experience is created anew and can reveal new meanings.   

1.  Begin with a strong line.   A sense detail or an action is best.   It must be arresting in some way:  either make it musical or sensual or surprising or make it an action. 

2.  Poems are a pattern language.  Sound patterns or visual patterns are pleasing.  Look for ways to enhance the emerging patterns of a first draft.  Pay attention to vowel sounds, consonant sounds, almost rhyme, rhyme and rhythm and repetition.  The best way to hear this is to read it aloud.  Consider the overall shape of the poem.   Repeating words greatly emphasizes those words.   (So make sure you aren't overusing the pronoun "I" or the word "the.")

3.  Focus.  If you begin with a metaphor, continue to stay in the metaphor throughout the poem.    Avoid simile. It just isn’t as effective.   Writing persona poems is good practice for staying inside a metaphor.   

4.  Make sure that you have employed the five senses.  Good poems are rooted in the body.   Write from your heart, and write about what is really important to you.   You are creating an emotional experience.   Longing belongs in a poem, but not preaching.

5.   Consider context, juxtapositions, simultaneous occurrences, the landscape.  Consider some storytelling conventions, like journey or the rule of 3 or circular forms.   Consider mythology and Biblical story.  Is your poem somehow similar to a wider cultural story?   

6.   Use active verbs and SPECIFIC, concrete detail.   Vivid description.  Avoid the use of the words "is, are, was, were, has, had, have, been, seem, being."   In words, create a vivid picture in active voice.  Like Mary Oliver says, nouns and verbs are worth 50 cents, adjectives and adverbs are worth far less.   They can clutter up the poem, deaden it.   Try to build tension into the lines (maybe by the use of opposites or juxtapositions or by the use of an antagonist; consider what the poem is up against or irresistibly drawn to).  Evoke a feeling, but don’t tell the reader how to feel.  

7.    Stanzas are like paragraphs.   Stanza breaks offer an opportunity to cross time and space, to free-associate or free-fall, surprise the reader.  

8.   Line breaks offer an opportunity to make the poem more evocative.   See if you can increase the meanings.  Sometimes ambiguities enhance the poem.   The end word of a line, a stanza, and the entire poem is important. 

9.   Value the resonating image.   Sometimes an image lingers or resonates for a writer.   Use
this and keep it central to the poem.  Let the poem lead you.  Listen to the work.   Allow yourself to work intuitively.   

10.  Often beginning poets can be heavy-handed with the conclusion. Do not summarize what you just said in the poem.  Don't tell the reader what to feel.  End strong.  Think of your last line as a phrase of music.

October 31, 2010

A Poet's Voice

What do writing teachers mean by "finding your own voice?" More than anything, one realizes the voice.  It's unmistakably you--your own words in the way that you would say it. Beginning writers often don't trust their voice, and they try to sound like other writers. It won't work!

Here's an example of a poem with a strong writer's voice:

Curtains by Ruth Stone

Putting up new curtains, other
windows intrude.
As though it is that first winter in Cambridge
when you and I had just moved in.
Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.

What does it mean if I say this years later?

Listen, last night
I am on a crying jag
with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta.
I sneaked in two cats.
He screams NO PETS! NO PETS!
I become my Aunt Virginia,
proud but weak in the head.
I remember Anna Magnani.
I throw a few books. I shout.
He wipes his eyes and opens his hands.
OK OK keep the dirty animals
but no nails in the walls.
We cry together.
I am so nervous, he says.

I want to dig you up and say, look,
it's like the time, remember,
when I ran into our living room naked
to get rid of that fire inspector.

See what you miss by being dead?

from Second-Hand Coat (Boston: Godine, c1987)

The voice is so singular, so strong.   In the space of just a few lines, we are completely connected. It is intimate, immediate, and sweeps us into her world.  A memoir in a few associations.  In two lines, we have a history of a marriage and a widowhood. "Now cold borsht alone in a bare kitchen."  Stone has nailed the reader with an inescapably vivid detail. The taste is something the reader knows.  A stanza break and a question, "What does it mean if I say this years later?"  The stanza break here allows the writer and reader to make a transition. What does it mean?  I like that the question is not answered in the poem, but the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. The next stanza presents a dramatic scene and a memory of another scene. The final question nearly stabs the heart with its poignancy.    The title is so well chosen.  It begins by putting up curtains, but the shadow meaning of curtains, meaning the end in a drama, also comes in.

Each writer's voice is singular and unique.  It's important to preserve it through the drafts of the poem.  One's voice is made of the way that you talk, your word choice, the things you notice, the place you live, the intimacies you have. It contains your obsessions and passions and quirks.  Love those! Love your voice.

October 17, 2010

The Poet's Power

Greeter of Souls
by Deborah Digges

Ponds are spring-fed, lakes run off rivers.
Here souls pass, not one deified,
and sometimes this is terrible to know
three floors below the street, where light drinks the world,
siphoned like music through portals.
How fed, that dark, the octaves framed faceless.
A memory of water.
The trees more beautiful not themselves.
Souls who have passed here, tired brightening.
Dumpsters of linen, empty
gurneys along corridors to parking garages.
Who wonders, is it morning?
Who washes these blankets?
Can I not be the greeter of souls?
What’s to be done with the envelopes of hair?
If the inlets are frozen, can I walk across?
When I look down into myself to see a scattering of birds,
do I put on the new garments?
On which side of the river should I wait?

from Trapeze (Knopf, 2004)

Lately, I've been thinking that poems are made of desire.   This one, for instance. yearns with a dark intensity.

It begins in the natural world. After the first line, it falls into another world, the one you might enter after death. She uses the images of a hospital parking garage, a dark recess below healing, or past it. Delightful is her fusion of sense details: "...where light drinks the world,/ siphoned like music through portals./  How fed, that dark, the octaves framed faceless."   The alliteration of f sounds, "framed faceless" seem to reinforce the earlier f sound, in "siphoned."  There are many f sounds: deified, fed, frozen.  The word siphoned is an interesting choice.  One thinks of muzak played in elevators, drawn off, stolen from its rightful source.   The word means taken away from, and 'taken away from' is the topic at hand.   Is it the narrator that is taken away from, or is it the others?   The language shifts from literal to figurative and back as she wanders across the line between this world and the next.

She writes from the body:  "What's to be done with the envelopes of hair?"  Vivid detail.  It haunts us.   "When I look down into myself to see a scattering of birds,/ do I put on the new garments?"   Perhaps the narrator is speaking of her own death.  It seems so.   She is on a brink, desiring still.  "Can I not be the greeter of souls?"   This sentence with the word 'not' seems to cast two shadows.  "Can I not be....." is a heartbreaking choice of words for this poem. It speaks to the mystery we face, after being, can I not be?    "Can't I be" would have more correct grammatically but would not lend the additional meaning.  The 'not' reinforces the angst.   She is witness to death--others and her own, and she expresses the poignancy and confusion.

Poems like these reach into the subconscious, use both memoir, myth, and music, and release both deep wonder and awareness.

For more information about this poet, click on this link:  Deborah Digges

October 4, 2010

The Muse

I like to have two chairs at my desk, one for me and the other for the spirit that joins me at my work.   That is how it feels--the work is not just mine, it comes through me; so I must acknowledge this unnamed spiritual help.

When one person, by herself, even in self doubt and confusion, sits down to write, something happens.  She listens to herself and this other.  A world can rise up out of nothing at all, out of piece of blank paper and a pen, and it can hold such vivid life that it can change everything.   Writing can change the writer and it can change the reader.

A writing teacher once suggested a creative visualization in order to create a guide for yourself in your work.    I recommend this.  Consider who your literary influences are and choose a persona for your own muse.  Let your muse help you create the work and present it. 

September 25, 2010

Synergy: Poems & Music & Film


water resists
breaks without breaking
flows along invisible scores
courses between continuous
ends, begins

doesn't resist
touches, touches, turns
over the same skin...." 

Click on the link to view a sample of collaborative work. In this piece, I have written and read the poems and Kathy McTavish has composed and performed the music on cello.  The video images are selected collaboratively; Kathy has made the film. 

Immersion: poetry on video

In performance or in video, my poems are often joined to music and image.  Poems are often created in silence and solitude, and sometimes they are created while listening to music.  My poems have strong images, and they are a painting with words.  The poems reflect my landscape of northern Minnesota and the body.  I use memoir, myth, and the patterns in nature to tell a story of change.  Yet it is not 'nature poetry.'  I tend not to write wisdom poems.  Not that those are bad, but they aren't what I'm after artistically.  I seek to evoke multiple meaning and in the interest of that, pare down the language and have rapid "turns." In the patterns of nature, migration, erosion, flood, storm, I find meaning that lends itself well to human experience.    A good poem is vivid and immediate.   I like the poem to be an investigation that breaks open emotion. I have no ready answers nor do I trust that there are any.

When Kathy McTavish and I perform together, we do not seek to illustrate the other's work.  Poems are made of figurative language; we love the imagination.  We strive to 'push off from each other' and present a sound that has a creative tension and dialectical meaning.  We begin, but the sounds are like two people in conversation who are not necessarily talking about the same thing. This technique makes a much more interesting dialogue and story.  It is improvisational.

In hand, I have more poems than I will read that I've arranged into an arc.  The individual poems are pieces of mosaic that create a larger story.   My choices in performance are spontaneous and in relation to the sound of the cello.   The cello sound that Kathy has developed is done by a technique that we call "deep listening."   Deep listening demands a concentration and being in the moment.    In the moment, the changes of intonation and color are responded to immediately.  We do not erect rigid barriers but are open to the subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes in the environment, the instrument, the voice, and the setting.  We have learned that relying on intuition is best.  

The voice of the cello and my own voice are similar.  We are doing a duet.  It means that we can flex and alter and shift and build on each other.   The video work that we create also seeks an independent flow.  We have learned that interpreting the words of the poem literally in video image also does not work well for our purposes.   It must evoke meaning, and continue to be able to provide new meaning.  Therefore the still motion images create an abstract expressionist painting in motion.  The film has gestures and movement and color, and by itself is a shifting and beautiful story that invites the viewer to participate.  There are glimpses of character in shadow or mirror or other oblique means. The viewer interprets the meaning.  This is the same for the poems and music.   

The still motion images are created by the use of DSLR camera, a Canon EO5.   Kathy has been exploring Bokeh effects.  It is an artistic technique initially used by some Japanese photographers who enjoyed the aesthetics of blur.    She comes to this work by way of music; in fact the images are created in the same way that she creates music in her studio.  Her echo pedal and harmonics perhaps are a musical expression of blur.  She likes the 'infinite between.'   She began using images in her search for techniques of writing scores.   The images evoke meaning; to her, they create a synesthesia and seem to have their own sounds.  

The creative work that occurs simultaneously in performance will draw more shades of meaning and energy in proximity.  We seek to share this synergy with the audience and are pleased to talk with people about their own 'invisible procession' of images that arise in their imagination while they listen to our performance.

Poetry works well with other media.  See this website for the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, Germany.

September 13, 2010

From Duluth's Poet Laureate: A Community Wide Poetry Assignment

Since becoming poet laureate of Duluth, I've been considering ways to invite the community to write poems.   Poems are marvelous little machines.   They are made of sound and image and if poems are good, they will touch you. This kind of touch is especially important during times of transition:  a loss or a death, a departure, a journey, a union like a marriage, a new job, new home, an illness, a recovery, a birth, a new beginning.   Poetry has so much to offer everybody.

So on this blog, I've decided to offer some writing prompts.  I've gathered three examples and invite you to write a poem that is structured like the example.    "Copying from the masters" is a good way to learn the craft of poetry.   But instead of recreating the master's work, make a parallel poem.  Try adapting one of the master's features to your own.  Make a poem with the same number of lines or stanzas.   Make a poem on a related topic.   Use language in a similar way.   Play with it 'fast and loose.'  In this way, you can use the master's poem as a scaffold of sorts to build your own poem.   

The following suggestions are drawn from the following poem examples.   When you begin writing, detach from the internal critic.   Avoid perfectionism.   Focus on details and the five senses.   Experiment, play, follow your instinct.   Make a first draft without much thought.  Save that for later.

Writing prompt:   Write a poem about a piece of clothing  
Writing prompt:  Write a list poem about something you've lost or found
Writing prompt:  Write about a first lesson

In this poem by Connie Wanek (from her book of poems, On Speaking Terms, Copper Canyon Press, c2010), Connie focuses on a rag, a sleeve of an old shirt, to express changes:


I dust with a sleeve I loved
to look at on my arm.
Blue is gray now, like a patch
of sky filthy with clouds.
Why is piano dust always so gray?
Something about sound waves
and day
that science could explain.

I didn't need scissors
the cotton was so rotted
by sun and sweat, the salt I made,
the sticky seawater.  I was glad
to actually wear something out,
to have seen one thing
completely through,
even though I'd miss
being the person who wore it.

Poetry has such an economy of words and yet conveys volumes.   This poem focuses on just one object, a dust rag that she'd made from a worn shirt.   The last line is so striking; one understands suddenly getting older.

In this poem, Elizabeth Bishop talks about loss.  It is from her book The Complete Poems 1927-1979 (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, LLC).

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names and where it was you meant
to travel.  None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next to last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones.  And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

This poem is a form called villanelle that features 3 line stanzas and repeated lines 1 and 3 from the first stanza.  It uses figurative language like many poems.    It starts out with simple losses but with each stanza, the loss becomes greater and deeper.   Bishop's tone is light and ironic, but she conveys the devastation.   Poems like these bring the reader gifts of solace and beauty.

Poems are gifts.  To receive a poem is an honor.   Consider writing a poem about a person, a place, or a thing in your life.   In the example by Connie Wanek, she shows us how writing about the sleeve of a shirt can reveal a life.   Wanek's poem is tightly focused.      In the example by Elizabeth Bishop, she creates a list.  Lists are very good ways to build a poem.  Bishop's losses were very important ones to her.  It is essential to write about what is important.  

This poem by Philip Booth (you can find it at is a memory that also becomes a blessing:

First Lesson

Lie back daughter, let your head
be tipped back in the cup of my hand.
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread
your arms wide, lie out on the stream
and look high at the gulls. A dead-
man's float is face down. You will dive
and swim soon enough where this tidewater
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe
me, when you tire on the long thrash
to your island, lie up, and survive.
As you float now, where I held you
and let go, remember when fear
cramps your heart what I told you:
lie gently and wide to the light-year
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

This poem concentrates on the details of learning to swim.   Booth does allow the poem to open up, past the particular day of the swimming lesson, but he remains in the metaphor of swimming.  Metaphors allow the writer/poet a longer reach.  Booth is talking about swimming, but we all know he is talking about life as well.

I invite you to try these exercises and share your work with others.

August 3, 2010

Information for Writers

Check out the National Writers Union website for information about copyright, negotiating contracts, publishing, and many other important topics.

July 25, 2010

How to Facilitate a Writers' Group

A writers group provides support, encouragement and critique.   It is a great way to give structure to your writing project and to get good feedback.  The group does not have to be large; 3 people is great.   Over 6 people will require more time for the meeting and to read manuscripts.   I've used the following guidelines to facilitate groups.  

Guidelines for Writing Groups
for a critique group: 3-6 people

Plan your group process with the members of the group.   

Are you a closed group or an open group? Multi-genre or single genre? How will you take in new members? When and where will you meet?   I've found that it works well to meet at a coffeehouse or restaurant, especially if you can reserve a quiet corner.   It's a neutral territory and eliminates worry about housekeeping or managing pets or displacing family members at home.   Decide the length of time that you will meet.  One hour is good for a small group. Over two hours is too long.  What is the primary goal of each person in the group? (This is important. Some people find having a deadline is what they need. Some just want to get started and don’t want a lot of critique that might be discouraging. Some have a large manuscript or past published work and want “deep critical examination.”

This is a good time to decide if you want to designate one person as a facilitator or time keeper.    This person can help manage the group process.   

Prepare for your writing group session.   

Make a clean, readable copy of your writing.   Format it in the same way that you would if you were sending it to an editor or publisher.  Bring enough Xerox copies of the work you want comments on—hand these out.

Be courteous.  If you will be late or must miss the group, notify the facilitator or other members.   Don't bring uninvited guests.  Writers are often reading works in progress and might prefer to have more private sharing.    Also, writing tends to be personal.  A new person might cause others to feel uncomfortable.
Learn to detach from your writing.   

Read the work aloud (or an excerpt of the work aloud) while members read along with you. Don’t apologize or dismiss your work. Reading out loud in itself will reveal some flaws or things that need to be added or omitted. If you have specific questions about the work, you can ask your reviewers to consider those.   It's a good practice for the writer to remain silent when members are giving feedback.   Resist explaining your decisions.   The readers must rely on what is written on the page and should respond only to that. 

Let your work stand on its own. Members of a group should practice ‘detachment’ from their own work when it is reviewed. Remember it is the work that is being scrutinized, not you the writer. Don’t take things personally. The feedback is an opinion and you don’t necessarily need to follow any advice or suggestions. Simply hear the feedback and then deliberate on your own. 

Don't monopolize the time.   Each member should have roughly equal time for reviews.

Give good feedback.  

Reviewers should make observations about the work. Notice what works well. Identify the strengths. In poetry, you should be attending to the sound, rhythm, pattern, imagery, metaphor, word choice. Be specific. Avoid general or vague comments like “this is good” or “I don’t like it.” Explain what exactly works for you and why. Note the shifts or confusing things. Reflect about what doesn’t seem to work. In prose, give feedback about dialogue, setting, action, point of view, and other aspects.    Note discrepancies or things that don't make sense.   Sometimes reviewers will disagree—all the better! The writer should sit back and listen to the feedback.

It is not necessary to tell the writer how to “fix” the work.  This might feel supportive, but it also might feel overbearing. Recommended solutions may not reflect the writer’s own style.   Ultimately, the writer will need to make the decisions to bring the work into line with his or her vision.  

Check in with each other regularly.

Take time to review group process. Your group will want to discuss how much time to spend on each work, and you will also benefit from talking about the individual writers process as well. Try to avoid distracting yourselves with personal information or experience. It’s easy to get sidetracked. Perhaps assign somebody to be a time keeper or to remind people to stay focused on the written work.

Set up an email list. Notify each other if you can’t attend. Respect each other’s time.

Getting Inside Poetry

Poetry may seem difficult at first.  Some readers feel frustrated or shut out by poems that seem obscure.   It takes awhile to learn its dimensions.    I think of poetry as a language within our language.   It is figurative instead of literal.   It uses metaphor and some devices in order to gain access to things that cannot be said.

I find it useful to describe poetry as "pattern language."  This phrase from architecture describes common forms: entrances, transitional spaces, roofs, particular uses for rooms, etc.    In fact, the word 'stanza' comes from the Italian and means 'room.'   Poetry is built; it does have structure.  This structure contains images, sounds, and creates meaning.    When you start to understand these elements, a gate opens and poetry becomes essential.   For me, poetry houses the spirit.    

Poetry's history is in the oral tradition.  It has been used in spiritual or religious ritual.  Prayers are memorized and spoken.   Blessings are given.   Spells are cast.   Traveling minstrels or storytellers instructed and entertained people.  Poetry's patterns allowed for easier memorization. 

"Voice" is key to understanding the poem.  Who is speaking and to whom?  Some poems are public and some very intimate.  Three basic types of poems are 1) narrative, 2) dramatic, and 3) lyric.   I consider the intention of the poet to determine the type of a poem.    The narrative is essentially a story.  A dramatic poem tends to sound like a speech delivered to many. It often engages with important figures and historical events; it might be epic.  The lyric type is similar to song.  

Some poems are 'formal,' meaning that they use a form with prescribed meter, syllables in a line, stanzas, and rhyme.  Sonnets are forms, some are Shakespearean and some Petrarchan. Other forms are the sestina, villanelle, and pantoum.   Individual poets adapt forms to suit their work.  Then there are 'free verse' poems that do not follow a formula.  These might have 'blank verse,' meaning iambic rhythm.  The author of a free verse poem usually establishes his or her own pattern.

The purpose of the poem is also an interesting consideration.   The poet Paul Valery said that prose language is meant to disappear once the meaning is conveyed, but poetry is different.  The particular arrangement of words and rhythm physically affects the reader.   It resists disappearing.  The form itself is compelling and acts as a device that continues to create meaning each time we read it.       

Helen Vendler, an astute literary critic, writes:  "Both John Stuart Mill and T.S. Eliot...thought that the reader 'overhears' the speaker of the lyric, as the audience overhears the soliloquies of Hamlet.  Others...have preferred, as I do myself, to see the reader as the true speaker of the lyric.  In this view, the lyric is a script written for performance by the reader--who, as soon as he enters the lyric, is no longer a reader but rather an utterer, saying the words of the poem in propria persona, internally and with proprietary feeling.  For poems that are overheard, I prefer to keep the name 'dramatic monologue'; in such a poem the reader is genuinely placed in the position of overhearing someone else, clearly not himself, speak aloud to yet another person. I reserve the name 'lyric' for poems that make their reader their solitary speaker."  (from the Introduction of her book, The Given and the Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition)

Poetry does have a strong connection to the body, and the breath of the writer affects that of the reader.    In this way, we breath in and out the images and language, the vision of the poets.

July 8, 2010


Going through a difficult time?  Keep a journal.  A journal is a private document. It is like developing the raw material, mining the ore.  Perhaps it is a remnant. A journal will help you in many ways.  It can contain everything that you bring to it, grief, fear, anger, joy.  It will provide an opportunity to slow down and meditate.  Writing is a tool of the mind; you can sort out your thoughts on paper.   It will be a source book, a place to collect images, sounds, thoughts.  From these remnants, you will develop longer work.  

There is no correct or incorrect way to journal.  Write a lot.  Use the five senses when you write.   Julia Cameron of the The Writer's Way had good advice: 3 pages a day.  If you don't know where to begin, then start with an image or a description.  A person, a place, an object. The best thing is to is not to think too much about what to write, but just to begin.   

Allow yourself to be a beginner; use beginner's mind. Once you are writing, your subject will come to you.  When it comes, accept it. If you are one that works best with deadlines, a 10 minute timed writing is a good idea; but if you are still writing when the bell rings, then keep going.  It may become a poem or a story.   

I found these quotes (unknown author) on the website Creativity in Motion.  (If you are interested, check out the Creativity in Motion grant application and information about previously funded projects.)     
“You cannot be a creator AND a victim.”
“You will not find what you do not live.”
“It’s not what you are that holds you back, it’s what you think you’re not.”

Writing Process
Writer's block occurs, in my experience, when you have become a perfectionist or if you trying to impose an idea or a structure too soon.   Do not try to make it perfect!  Get over the obstacle of the self.  Limit your distractions. (Internet, cell phone, family!) This is a work in progress. This is a first draft or sloppy copy. It is merely a ten minute exercise. It is like doodling or sketching.  If it has spelling errors or grammar problems, keep going.  If you find it boring, drop down a level.  Write about what is important to you.   

In this passage from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the artist Lily Briscoe is outside with an easel:  "She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed.  It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself--struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: "But this is what I see; this what I see," and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her."  

Woolf is talking about the frustration of artists and writers: what you want is not always what appears.  This is common and not of concern when you are journalling.  We create documents made by hand. Flaws can be part of the beauty.  A remnant, if we are to use Woolf's image, may be all you need. Think of women who have created beautiful quilts and garments from remnants. Once you have your raw material, then consider it without early judgment. Discover the strengths of what is on the page. Maybe it wasn't the initial vision, but something else as valuable, a deeper vision.   Revision is designed to develop the strengths.

If you need a safe place to keep a journal, use an online program. or  If you have internet access, these allow you to access your writing (and they are password protected) from any computer at any time.   They are easy to use and free.

Several studies have demonstrated the benefits of keeping a journal. If you write down your goals, you are much more likely to achieve them.  If you keep a journal during recovery from illness, your outcome will improve.  Writing is a source of strength and it help you in many ways. 

June 25, 2010

Poetry: Not Feeling But Experience

Rilke said, "For poetry isn't, as people imagine, merely feelings (these come soon enough); it is experiences.   To write one line, a man ought to see many cities, people, and things; he must learn and know animals and the way of birds in the air, and how little flowers open in the morning.  One must be able to think back the way to unknown places...and to partings long foreseen, to days of childhood...and to days on the nights of travel...and one must have memories of many nights of love, no two alike...and the screams of women in must have sat by the dead in a room with open windows....But it is not enough to have memories.  One must be able to forget them and have vast patience until they come again...and when they become blood within us, and glances and gestures...then first it can happen that in a rare hour the first world of a verse may arise and come forth."  (Malte, pp 25-27)
Poetry provides an experience; it is physical.  The five senses are activated.  Sometimes people think it is about expressing feelings, but I agree with Rilke that it is about expressing experience.   In this quote, he says that one must have integrated the experience so that it has become part of yourself, in your blood, glances and gestures.   It is, in other words, experience that changes you.    (Writing assignment:  write about something that changed you).

Very good poems can change you.

Read this essay, Mark Doty writing about Rilke's poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo."

May 24, 2010

Alejandra Pizarnik

I love this fragment from poet Alejandra Pizarnik, from Argentina (1936-1972):

“dije you, perio me referia al alba luminosa…”

“I said I but I was referring to the luminous dawn…”

This is from her work, "Pathways of the Mirror, " from Poems for the Millenium: The Univ of California Book of Modern and Post-Modern Poetry. (1998)

Alejandra Pizarnik:  "If only I were able to live solely in ecstasy, making the body of the poem with my body, redeeming each phrase with my days and weeks, infusing the poem with my breath for each word that has been sacrificed in the ceremonies of living.

"Poetry is the place where everything happens. Similar to love, humor, suicide and every profoundly subversive act, poetry is not interested in that which is not its freedom or truth. To say freedom or truth and refer these words to the world we live in or do not live in is to tell a lie. It isn't when they are attributed to poetry: the place where all is possible."

More information about Pizarnik

This is the work that inspired my poem "I Said I" in Cloud Birds. It echoed the Finnish women poets whose metaphor was woman as landscape.

May 13, 2010

Why is Poetry Important?

Art strengthens both community and diversity.  Whatever we write about makes it stronger.  Naming is very powerful.   An investment in the arts, in your own and that of others, is an investment in the soul.  Writing and poetry help people during times of transition to see ourselves in a larger context.

Poetry is a pattern language.  It is similar to visual art because it employs image but it creates an auditory or sound environment.

Poems have taught me important things.   They are a way of knowing.   My poems tend to have a voice that is located outside in the landscape as opposed to inside a domestic space.   I draw meaning from the natural world, from rivers and migrations.  

"River begins in the other world/ without time."   (from Undertow)

"near shore another story / places that no longer know me..." (from Echo & Lightning)

My collections of poems, in chapbooks or books or in performances, are mosaics.  The individual poems are arranged in a way to create a larger story.  My stories are not escapist.  Instead of going away from reality, they go into it in ways that alter it for me.

May 11, 2010

What Do Poems Do?

It's hard to describe exactly what a great poem does. Here are some thoughts: 
"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."
--Emily Dickinson

"Energy within the poet goes into the poem, but then must go from the poem to a reader or listener. There has to be this transfer of energy."
—Muriel Rukeyser

"Imaginative work is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground; it is like a spider web attached ever so lightly, but attached to all four corners of the earth."
—Virginia Woolf

"Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting."
—Robert Frost

"Truth is not an unveiling which destroys the secret, but a revelation that does it justice."
—Walter Benjamin

May 1, 2010

Listening to the Work: Thoughts on Writing Fiction and Poetry

Re-vision is an important part of the writing process.     I like to break the syllable to emphasize the word, vision: to see the work again, to see what it can be.   

"I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out—an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination."  Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping, Gilead and Home.

This is an excerpt of an interview in The Paris Review.  This advice works well when you are writing poetry too.  Something leaps out that is strong enough to build the poem around.    This is how you "listen to the work."      It begins by building on the strengths:  enhance the image or the moment.  Create a pattern that emphasizes the strengths.   Take out anything that isn't needed.    Read it aloud.   Listen.   Read it to somebody else.  Listen.    If you have gone deep enough into the poem and become fully engaged, then you will reach the discipline of language and imagination that Robinson mentions. 

Lately, I've been meditating on the fact that poems are small, but they contain memoir, music, and sometimes myth.    Often they capture a moment, a story, a particular set of sounds, a pattern.  Sometimes the pattern is internal to the poem.....a metrical scheme, a stanzaic pattern.  Sometimes this pattern connects to another pattern, a mythic or larger cultural story.   The author Marilynne Robinson has joined the novels to archetype and sacred stories.  The poet can do this too. Poems are very small, but they contain a voice, a landscape, a world, an eternity. 

If you want to read the interview with Marilynne Robinson, go to

April 22, 2010

Duluth Poet Laureate

As a poet, I look for the resonating image and pattern. In language, I explore memoir, myth, music, and patterns of the natural world in my quest. My ultimate goal is to break through to a larger vision or break open a deeper emotional landscape. This is what good poems do for the reader and writer; they are like gifts. They open us and provide sustenance for the spirit.

As a person in the role of poet laureate over the next two years, I invite people to join me along this path of sustaining the spirit.

As a teacher and social worker, I know that many people have unique and compelling visions or stories to tell. Not all of these people decide to become writers but nevertheless, they breathe their sparks into writing. Like most creative work, writing can transform the writer. This is why writing is valuable for those in transition or those that are healing. I want to provide encouragement for the community to use poetry for their ceremonies and transitions.

As a person who likes to walk along the trails of our city, following the rivers and creeks, and as a poet who has written many river poems--I am interested in exploring how larger patterns in our ecosystem and world, such as watersheds, erosion or migration can inform an artistic work. Similarly, I am also interested in and want to connect my work with the larger patterns of human experience reflected in our important cultural stories. Jungian psychology, mythology, Biblical story, fairytale, history and other ways that can help connect the individual artistic work to a larger context. In my own family history, immigration of my Finnish grandparents to Minnesota has deeply influenced my poems. My work is also deeply connected to the northern landscape.

As a poet, I like to develop and celebrate art. At their best, literary arts represent both good craft and deep quest. In poetry, the language, history, landscape, and experience emerge for that individual and collectively, for the culture. The poet Linda Hogan once told me, “Whatever you write about makes it stronger.”

A community that honors and celebrates the arts becomes a community of openness and exchange. Unique voices rise that bring images and stories that stir us. The arts foster diversity not uniformity. The community that invests in the activity of art making (and poetry is art) is preserving its culture and promoting creativity. This is why it's a great investment to use taxes to support the arts in our communities. We are all strengthened.

Toward the goal of expanding the audience for poetry and celebrating the unique characteristics of Duluth, I'd like to integrate poetry deeply into our community. The following are some activities that I've proposed. I look forward to collaborating further with the poet laureate committee to adapt them as needed and to have these activities reflect the diversity of our community.

Community Projects:

"Blessings" -- this is community wide project--adults and children—designed to help people in our community to write blessing poems. I'd like to see these blessings given with the bowls at Empty Bowl and at the free Thanksgiving Dinner at the DECC....the best of these should be made into broadsides (collaborating with visual artists) for our area hospice programs, the Women's Shelter, CHUM, the Food Shelf, Detox, and other organizations that assist the homeless or hungry to provide warmth and encouragement.  Learning to write a blessing also enhances one's own relationships.  We can all provide blessings for weddings, births, deaths, traveling, school or training, military service, medical treatments and healing, and other endeavors. The world will be a much better place if we can find a way to bless rather than blame. 

Arbor Day or Earth Day: "Poet Trees": plant a tree and place a poem --either an excerpt of or an entire poem written by a poet in this region on a wooden panel or sign: the harbor - pier or bridge area, Park Point, the Rose Garden (wedding poem here), Munger Trail, Seven Bridges Road, the creeks in Duluth: Miller Creek, Chester Creek, Tischer Creek, Lester River, the Lakewalk.  I look forward to developing this idea with area trail enthusiasts, environmentalists and citizens interested in the city parks and trails and the Lake Superior Hiking Trail. 

Poetry Readings / Events

Hawk's Ridge fall bird migration: "Migrations" Invite poets to share their work that relates to birds, flight or migration (migration of any kind)...the place that we left, the place that we are going....with a special invitation for poems about or from women in transition....

Grandma's Marathon & or Lake Superior Hiking Trail/ ultra-marathon: "Long Journey" -- poems that relate to the theme of journey (of any kind) or quest, with a special invitation for poems about the body and healing.

Gales of November: "The Body, The Vessel" I would propose a multimedia performance that would feature a handful of poets, musicians, and modern dance that pays homage to the lake, the boats, and our history of staying afloat....


"Blessings: Poems for Commemoration" - I'd like to offer a guideline with a few writing exercises for all interested persons, writers or not, about how to write a blessing poem. This could be posted online for individuals, teachers, group leaders, and others to use. Poems like these are useful for commemorating a dinner or special event such as a wedding, birth, graduation, a long journey, moving into a new house, entering military service or any field of work, relationship transitions, and death. They are valuable for those in crisis. It is a gift of love that family, friends and others will appreciate.

"Getting Out There" a day long workshop presented by me and a few other poets on publication and alternative modes of poetry presentation: UTube, blogs, MP3 files, chapbooks and collaborations.

"Poetry and Quest" -- Poetry is both craft and quest. Many workshops and classes focus on improving craft--word choice, lines, stanza, meter, rhythm and sound. These are important. This workshop focuses on another part of the poet's job: quest. Participants will write about their own individual motives and goals in their writing. We will examine aspects of "voice" and pattern. This is not meant to be a comprehensive examination of archetypes, but as a way for poets to consider their larger themes. I will present some thoughts about archetypal patterns in relationship to writing, revision, and manuscript development.

The Quest --King Arthur
The Fall and Ascent--The Bible
Trading with the Gods--Greek Mythology
Spells and Tasks--fairy tales
Guidance on the Journey--Tarot, Runes, I-Ching
Carl Jung--Dreams, Archetypes and Jungian Psychology
Nature--migration, flow, wilderness, the elements

Please share your thoughts with me. I’d love to hear your feedback. And if you are a member of the Duluth area and want to participate, please send me an email at

April 18, 2010


Creative work is a flow experience.   In flow, a writer has deep focus and attentiveness.   It feels outside of time.    Hours can go by without notice.   Of course, it is sometimes difficult to get across the threshold.   Distractions abound.    It's important to allow yourself enough unscheduled time to daydream, muse, and then fall in.

Lewis Hyde, author of THE GIFT, takes the idea of flow a bit farther.   He urges artists and writers to understand the psychic rules of flow. In order to continue to receive, one must continue to give. It is like a river. It is like pot-latch. The giving of gifts to others not only nurtures and supports them; the giving allows one to empty oneself in order to receive.     We should not be attached to things, and we should not be so attached to our work that we can not let it go into the world.  
I wrote this poem (from THE MOTHER TONGUE):  


to reach down this far
releases me
the place inside
has been broken open
by necessity
I don't know what I've lost
I don't know that I have lost
I'm broken open
the floor that made me contain
allowed me to fill, be filled
is gone
I am without bottom
without a way to hold
all the things coming into me
they fall from me
I am the opening
the sluice gate
am swept with the force
yet hold open
what I pray for is endless
is the constant source
the river never running dry

Some people have asked me if the poem is about death.  Perhaps it is.  My father died the year that I wrote it.   Like most people, I appreciate the effect of change.   You gain people, places, things but also along the way, you lose people, places, things.  At times, it is excruciating.   I named the poem, Joy;  my mother gave me the name Joy as my middle name.  Anguished awe.  Painful ecstasy.  

Creative work is good work.  We write things, we put them out there.  The work might change in this process; it might change us; it might change someone else. We don't know.  It perhaps is not of concern; what matters is that we give of ourselves.

The simultaneous experience of receiving while losing, the feeling of love and grief at the same, is echoed in cosmology.  The universe began with simultaneous creation and destruction.   We have both light and dark matter.   So it is not a question of either/or; we have both love and grief.   Perhaps the real question is how does one direct one's own abilities--which force will you feed?   What is your quest?    What forces rise up from your ancestral roots, what growth can you accomplish, what have you come to say?

I found this Pueblo Blessing: 

Hold on to what is good even if it is a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe even if it is a tree which stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to life even when it is easier letting go.
Hold on to my hand even when I have gone away from you.
- Pueblo Blessing

April 13, 2010

Synesthesia & Art Fusion: Cloud Birds

Read a Book Review, "Not Forgotten: A Poem by Lois After Mark" Midlife at the Oasis. Web.  July 8, 2011.

Godard the French film maker said of his work that it was "as if I wanted to write a sociological essay in the form of a novel, and all I had to do it with was notes of music."  Poetry and film are related genres: both employ image, word, music.   They operate the same way.  I like poetry that cross pollinates with painting, sculpture, photography, music, composition, film, theater, dance.  Even better to combine it with other ways of knowing: science, navigation, philosophy, history, religion, alchemy.    Poetry is a form of waking.   

I think of it as paradox, the combination of opposites.   Not dialectic, but ecstatic.   Not static, but in motion.   

Poetry is a live painting for the ear, or music made by taste and touch that reaches you deep inside.   It's time travel by smell.    It tells you about yourself by water or wind or stone or flames.  If it's a pattern, if it's a ritual, if it's a dance.   It will sing to you, unsettle you, bring you back to yourself, change your life.  And all you have to do it with is the alphabet and empty space.

Cloud Birds has three sections:  Bear, Wing, Cloud.

Bear, the first section, contains twenty-one love poems to bears. I'd had a bear phobia since childhood. My father, who obviously was worried about me wandering in the forest by myself, warned me to stay near the house "or the bears would eat me."  Parents don't usually use this method of childrearing, but he grew up on a farm. They had sheep, and often bears preyed on the lambs.  So perhaps his fear was grounded in that experience.  Nevertheless, the effect had been paralyzing. One of the poems in the section was dedicated to Ana Mendieta, the environmental artist who had mysteriously fallen from her balcony window in New York City. Her husband was charged with the crime, but he was acquitted. This was an ekphrastic poem, written because the cover image by Cecilia Ramón was in homage to Ana Mendieta.

When I moved to the house in the country in 2007, I had seven intersections with bears. In the city while I was driving in the city of Duluth, on Superior Street at the Tischer Creek Bridge near 34th Avenue East.  One peered in my studio window at home while I was working at my computer.  I saw two crossing the freeway, and a week later, meandering on the Homestead Road. At the cabin, Kathy and I went for a walk on the Olsen Road near Thunder Bay. In the mud, I saw the distinct prints of a bear claw. Fresh!  Then, the footprints wandered off the road and disappeared into the bush. Uneasily, I looked behind and the bear was following me.  On another day, we encountered one again. This time, it stood up on two legs and stared at us.  We waved our arms and shouted. The bear was curious. It got back on all fours and paced back and forth. We didn't dare walk forward, and it didn't want to leave. Minutes passed. Not a car drove down the road. My legs were shaking.  I noticed that no one was home at the neighbor's house, and maybe the bear was bound for this place, because a chicken coop was in the yard. I found some scrap metal in the yard, luckily. I banged the rings of an old kitchen stove, and finally the bear bolted across the field.

I decided to let my anxiety feed my writing and was inspired by Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and one poems of Despair.  Kathy had suggested my obsessions with bears, my hyper-vigilance, was perhaps related to my Finnish heritage. Were they not bear people in the Kalevala? Aren't they magical?  So that began this series, and it became a meditation about fear and an exploration of the wilderness and secret life, and then suddenly it was about women and intimacy. The bear poems were a ritual act, a Kalevalian effort to break the spell of my fears.

The next section of the book, Wing, was a series of poems that were about fear, women walking through violence, and my relationship with my father.  The poem about the man who lived in a tree was a story I'd heard in Finland from my second cousin Mikko Himanka. We were touring the family cemetery plot, and I'd seen the tombstone of the Man Who Lived in a Tree.  Mikko explained he had been in America to work in an iron mine, but he had contracted miner's lung, and he came back home to die. After his experience of years working in the underground mine, he preferred to sit in a tree instead of anywhere else, and this is how he had become a legend.

The third section of the book, Cloud, was about moving through love relationships, about break-ups and migrations. Two Worlds is the title of one of the poems. When a love affair is over, it feels like falling out of the world.  Of course, when one falls out of the world, one falls into another one.  It triggered meditations on Persephone.  This mythic story of a daughter who fell into the underworld fascinates me.  Isn't this migration?  Walking through hell, or walking through violence, wasn't just something I'd witnessed in other relationships.  I'd had to do that myself. It was a personal experience.

So much of what I've been through in life gets worked through artistically.  Before I can really articulate it, I must find images.  I'd been reading the collection of Finnish women poets, Enchanting Beasts.  The beast I was determined to enchant was not a bear actually, but fear.

Read a Book Review, "Not Forgotten: A Poem by Lois After Mark" Midlife at the Oasis. Web.  July 8, 2011.

March 12, 2010

Why I Write

I write because I was born into two languages: Finnish and English.  Both sets of my grandparents were Finnish immigrants and they learned very little English.   I write because there was so much they couldn't say.    I write about migration of many kinds.  Birds, grandmothers, desire.   My grandmothers' lives were very difficult.   They both gave birth to several children, ten in my mother's family and eight in my father's.  There wasn't enough food sometimes, there wasn't enough of anything.   I write because I could not bear my mother's secrets.   I write out of a need to dance.    

As a little girl, I was located in between lakes, near burial mounds of the Ojibwe, between iron and taconite mines, between Finnish and English, between two sisters, on a small farm with a few horses, a few cows, chickens, dogs, cats, and a garden.  Each evening, when the sun set behind the pines, it ignited the water with its fire, and the shining broke through the stand of trees like glitter.   Mornings, I heard a sound in the morning unlike any other.   It was more of an echo than a sound.  It was more of a calling than an echo.   Maybe I was used to unknown words; for some reason, I called it "warding."   I thought it was the sound of the sun coming up but I later found out that it was the train hauling iron ore from the mine.   The sound was the sound of wheels on a track.   The very earth was being moved away. 

I write because there is so much that the earth can't say.    I write out of restlessness and grief.  I write out of awe.    I write because the world presses itself upon me: iron, rivers, birds, trees, lakes, light.   I migrate.

Poems are a doorway in ordinary experience to a place that you haven't seen before.   It's where you live.  Poetry dislocates you in a familiar way. It is a staunch for old wounds.   Poetry uses the same language that dreams use, only it isn't a dream.   Poetry uses the language to get around the language toward the silence of a river.    Beneath your feet, the river erodes the banks, takes you in like it takes in the sand and the roots and the light.    All in.

March 11, 2010

sending poems out

Poets and Writers Magazine has a great website.    Check it out to find a database of literary magazines and contest information.     These listings will help you decide where and when to send poems or stories:

The Academy of American Poets has a great website of poets, poems, bios and articles about poetry.

A website that might help you keep track of your submissions:

February 23, 2010

Marianne Moore: Piercing Glances

It comes to this: of whatever sort it is,
it must be "Lit with piercing glances into the life of things";
it must acknowledge the spiritual forces which have made it.

--Marianne Moore
from the poem "When I Buy Pictures"

Those Various Scalpels

various sounds, consistently indistinct, like intermingled echoes
   struck from thin glasses successively at random—
       the inflection disguised: your hair, the tails of two
   fighting-cocks head to head in stone—
       like sculptured scimitars repeating the curve of your  
               ears in reverse order:  
                                                                        your eyes,
             flowers of ice and snow
This poem is an example of "visceral poetry."  If you read the novel Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolanos, in the opening pages the poet narrator joins the 'school of visceral poets.' He declares not to know what it means, but nevertheless, he's in.   All poetry benefits from visceral details, physical details. This poem by Marianne Moore employs the sound sense, the visual, and the tactile. The word scalpel has a visceral image of cutting the flesh. 

See more of the poem at
Biographical Information:

February 21, 2010

The Quest: What Can't be Taught in a Writer's Workshop

It’s true, poetry workshops can be helpful. I've been to workshops that I've enjoyed. I've led workshops.  At some point, it is always necessary to invest time in solitude. Recently, I ran across this interview with Gregory Orr, excerpted here:

"To me poetry is both Quest and Craft. The quest aspect: what poetry means to you as an individual who has decided to orient her life in relation to this thing called 'poetry'—no one can really solve that for you. You search for guides and poetic forebears, but it's a personal search and struggle. Workshops necessarily stress craft, they can do only so much in relation to quest. But craft is easier than quest and less lonely. You can learn craft; you can improve, you can utilize your intelligence to master it. Why not call poetry Craft and forget Quest, or give the quest aspect short-shrift? That's the temptation that workshops breed. We know that. I guess the main defense would be to be forewarned. To tell yourself, "yes, this workshop response matters, but what is it that I personally need to learn or understand that poetry is trying to teach me?"

The full interview is at

Gregory Orr makes an important point. When workshops or writers groups meet, we talk about craft but quest is also equally important. While another writing group member might offer a good suggestion, you can’t “go that way.” The suggestion might not fit the need because of the self’s deeper quest.

It takes a long time to master craft. Orr offers an interesting question: what is your poetry trying to teach you?

Sometimes, we are so close to our own work that we can’t see it objectively. There are things that you can do to step back from the mirror. Literature is a coin of two sides, writing and reading. The work that you are drawn to reading again and again contains a key to your own writing. Notice what you are reading and why you like to read it. Consider the kinds of poems (written by other poets) that you love. What kind of quest do these poems reveal? What are the life questions? Your own fascinations and obsessions reveal things about you. Another way to gain some distance is to ask a friend to make some observations of your work. This time, don’t ask for feedback about craft, but do ask for reflections about quest related to a specific group of poems that you wrote.   Expect an interesting conversation. 

This is not about writing “wisdom poems.” In a quest, the answers are hard won and long in coming, if they come at all. The issues are deep and deeply troubling; the best that one can do is to name the question. Think of Chiron, the wounded healer. Think of the Odyssey and King Arthur. Think of Lord of the Rings. These great stories illuminate a path for your own work.

January 29, 2010

Pablo Neruda: Toward an Impure Poetry

Pablo Neruda:   "It is good, at certain hours of the day and night, to look closely at the world of objects at rest. Wheels that have crossed long, dusty distances with their mineral and vegetable burdens, sacks from the coal bins, barrels, and baskets, handles and hafts for the carpenter's tool chest. From them flow the contacts of man with the earth, like a text for all troubled lyricists. The used surfaces of things, the wear that the hands give to things, the air, tragic at times, pathetic at others, of such things - all lend a curious attractiveness to the reality of the world that should not be underprized.

In them one sees the confused impurity of the human condition, the massing of things, the use and disuse of substances, footprints and fingerprints, the abiding presence of the human engulfing all artifacts, inside and out.

Let that be the poetry we search for: worn with the hand's obligations, as by acids, steeped in sweat and in smoke, smelling of lilies and urine, spattered diversely by the trades that we live by, inside the law or beyond it.

A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denial and doubts, affirmations and taxes.

The holy canons of madrigals, the mandates of touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing, the passion for justice, sexual desire, the sea sounding-willfully rejecting and accepting nothing: the deep penetration of things in the transports of love, a consummate poetry soiled by the pigeon's claw, ice-marked and tooth-marked, bitten delicately with our sweatdrops and usage, perhaps. Till the instrument so restlessly played yields us the comfort of its surfaces, the woods show the knottiest suavities shaped by the pride of the tool. Blossom and water and wheat kernel share one precious consistency: the sumptuous appeal of the tactile.

Let no one forget them. Melancholy, old mawkishness impure and unflawed, fruits of a fabulous species lost to the memory, cast away in a frenzy's abandonment-moonlight, the swan in the gathering darkness, all hackneyed endearments: surely that is the poet's concern, essential and absolute.

Those who shun the "bad taste" of things will fall flat on the ice."