December 1, 2012

Poems that Connect

The writer Richard Rodriguez says, “The drama of the essay is the way the public life intersects with my personal and private life. It's in that intersection that I find the energy of the essay.”  This applies to poetry as well.  

Some poets write poems that are isolated, solipsistic.  It's true there is a way to write so personally that it becomes universal. I search for the crossings between public and private, between history and one life, between many and one.   I search for the edge, the shoreline, the stones. Footsteps have been washed away by waves and wind, but sometimes, in a spot protected from the elements, one appears. I measure it with my own foot.  I fit it into my own steps and inside walks the ghost. 

All of us walk in many worlds, the world of the past, the worlds of others, and the world of our own imagining.  There is the energy of the poem.  The path is difficult to find, sometimes it is broad and other times precipitous.   We climb to the place where we can gaze the greatest distance.

November 12, 2012

The Use of Opposites: Some Thoughts on Writing

The use of opposites injects a tension and energy into writing.  It is incisive; immediately the writer penetrates deeply into the subject. Recently, I've been reading the work of two very different writers, Natalia Ginzburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Natalia Ginzburg, the Italian essayist (1916-1991)  had a writer's voice so intimate and true, it felt she was inside:

When I write stories I am like someone who is in her own country, walking along streets that she has known since she was a child, between walls and trees that are hers. 

As I read her essay "He and I," I also walked along her streets as if they were my own.  Her marriage struck a balance between opposites. In contradiction, she loved; in cross moods, impassioned fights, broken plates, she had tenderness. She is so familiar. Her writing voice ignites images of the domestic. She had a tendency to write in comparison and contrast, like she did in this essay, "Worn Out Shoes" in her book The Little Virtues:

My shoes are worn-out, and the friend I live with for the moment also has worn-out shoes. When we are together we often talk about shoes. If I talk about the time when I shall be an old, famous writer, she immediately asks me “What shoes will you wear?” Then I say I shall have shoes of green suede with a big gold buckle on one side.  

The voice of Ginzburg is so personal and affectionate, yet it flexes with remarkable power. She is able to hold the most diverse and opposing thoughts within each sentence:

As soon as we see our dreams betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality, and we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.

And even as she wrote about herself, these opposing forces come in:

When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn't matter much to me. Only, I don't want to think about names: I can see that if I am asked "a small writer like who?" it would sadden me to think of the names of other small writers. I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be. The important thing is to be convinced that this really is your vocation, your profession, something you will do all your life.  
In actuality, Ginzburg was a very big writer whose work continues to shine.  

The other writer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is not an essayist but a poet.  The Coney Island of the Mind and 29 other books of his have influenced American culture. He is one of the Beat Poets.  He is both a writer and a publisher, and he owns City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. His poem "I Am Waiting" is widely anthologized. Through this good poem, the use of opposites reveals his social and political consciousness:
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
a bright yellow garbage truck
with two garbage men in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
The man
in a hip three-piece linen suit
with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglassed
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with short skirt and coloured stockings
on the way to his architect's office
And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
grungy from their route
on the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
and hunched back
looking down like some
gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
also with sunglasses and long hair
about the same age as the Mercedes driver
And both scavengers gazing down
as from a great distance
at the cool couple
as if they were watching some odourless TV ad
in which everything is always possible
And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
as if anything at all were possible
between them
across that small gulf
in the high sea
of this democracy.

These two writers were very powerful, and they provide us with beautiful work structured by opposites.


Ferlinghetti, Lawrence.  For more info, see and

Ginzburg, Natalia. The Little Virtues. c1962 Guilio Eunadi, edi s.p.a. and translation c1989 by Dick Davis. Arcade Publishing, New York.

October 16, 2012

Writer's Emptiness

The term writer's block calls to mind the cement road blocks set up to stop traffic. They are heavy and non-descript. Lately, I've decided to rename and reframe this concept. It time to refresh the language. "Writer's block" is a cliché.  Likewise, we make comparisons between being unable to write and a well going dry. It's overdone. The trouble with clichés is that they don't awaken us the way that fresh images and metaphor can.

Instead, I reach for other images. The farmer's fields yield more if there are seasons when they lie fallow. The writer might allow his or her fields to rest and replenish.  The concept of emptiness would then be understood as cyclical. Fields are empty during winter.  After seeds are planted, they only seem empty before the seedlings emerge. After harvest, the ground is turned over. We irrigate and fertilize. We seed and re-seed. We make and mend fences. Do you do this for the fields of your mind?

After the intense flows of words, it's only natural to hold silence. Writer's emptiness is to be embraced, as in the Tao:

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11
translation by Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (2004)
Thirty spokes share a hub;
The usefulness of the cart
            lies in the space where there is nothing.
Clay is kneaded into a vessel;
The usefulness of the vessel
            lies in the space where there is nothing.
A room is created by cutting out doors and windows;
The usefulness of the room
            lies in the space where there is nothing.
The benefit of things lies in the usefulness of nothing.

In other words, trust that you also are the hub of a wheel, the vessel, or the room.  Be glad for the usefulness of silence. Practice solitude, mindfulness, and acceptance.  Protect emptiness --  it is the place where new creative work begins.

more translations of this and other Taoist thoughts at

October 3, 2012

The Craft that Defies Craftsmanship

Narrative Poetry

Recently, I've compared narrative techniques across genres, from poetry to fiction to essay. What are the basic elements?  A character, an action, a voice.  In a poem, the images and sounds flash and beckon.  In a story the energy, spark and flint, comes from the interaction between two characters. In essays, narration is freed from plot and can enter free-falls of association.  Action frames the essay, but the action occurs on more than one level.  Maybe poetry and essay are more closely related, or maybe the demarcations of all three genres are completely artificial.  

Advice about writing abounds, and yet hardly any formula serves me at my desk. Don't get me wrong, I love to read the rules. These are the first five from Jack Kerouac's Rules for Spontaneous Prose:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form

In these lines are the thrill of driving lines far into the night, accelerating, inebriated, exhausted. Poets also might nod agreement.  And here are five from Kurt Vonnegut:

1.  Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2.  Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3.  Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4.  Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5.  Start as close to the end as possible.
Empathy and desire, essential. We can all agree on the sensible nature of this advice. All writers should follow it, but these rules may not work.

Zadie Smith said, "...writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship."  Style, she says, derives from personal necessity. It is how the writer tells the truth.

Kerouac's rules worked for Kerouac, Vonnegut's for Vonnegut.  The rules that work for you will be discovered in the midst of your writing, and may change the next time you sit down to write a new work.

Writers are better without formulas. And yet I will venture my rules:

1.  Images visit and insist. Pay attention.
2.  A rhythm comes. So does the landscape. Wait.
3.  Bring it as far as you can, then push further.
4. Wild distraction may not be irrelevant.
5.  Go back, go deeper, connect.  Find context.
6.  Mine: in the sense of test-drill and excavate.

I like the advice of Zadie Smith.  Seek a "refinement of consciousness," like Aristotle's concept of the education of the emotions.

What rules are yours?


Find Kerouac and Vonnegut's advice, along with several other writers, at this website:

Smith, Zadie. "Fail Better." The Guardian. January 13, 2007. c2007. London, UK. Accessed October
       3, 2011.

September 17, 2012

Teaching Writing

Sometimes, teaching is a matter of being a river. I have my own riverbed and flow, but I invite yours. You don't have to join me; a confluence is often turbulent.  I invite you to become your own river.  It's likely you have just the place inside -- empty with boulders.  Sun shines and the water sends back the light.  It rains and suddenly you find currents, erosions, accretions, eddies. Willows hold and reach across the river to the other side. 

Sometimes a riverbed is dry. No matter. Maybe we'll work on the headwaters.  Maybe it has gone underground. The point is, you have riverness.  

I know water follows its own path. In the work, writers must let themselves be -- be a beginner, be uncertain, be full of clouds.  The clouds are on the surface.   Submerge and find the deep places, the cold and warm currents tugging on the roots and carrying the leaves and feathers and fish.  Things fall in, bridges are built, voices arrive.   

Image, image, image-engine.  Imagine.  One day the rains came for days and the water rose and tore away trees. I stood amid mudslides and broken roads.  Oh, that's a river for you. It rages and subsides.  We begin over and over.  

I want to trigger stories. It doesn't matter if they become poems, fiction, nonfiction, or letters. I want to tell you it begins with rain, and it becomes a path. It becomes deep, empties into a larger body. In this process of language falling among language --  we take in light, fall, let things go, arrive.

September 9, 2012

Write, Write, Write and Do Not Waste Time

About writing, Annie Dillard says,

"Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art; do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. Giacometti's drawings and paintings show his bewilderment and persistence. If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted. A master of drawing, Rico Lebrun, discovered that ''the draftsman must aggress; only by persistent assault will the live image capitulate and give up its secret to an unrelenting line.'' Who but an artist fierce to know - not fierce to seem to know - would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe any way but with the instruments' faint tracks.

"Admire the world for never ending on you as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes off him, or walking away.

"One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

"After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ''Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.'' "

August 27, 2012

Meridel LeSueur: Bonfire of Roses

I'm at work on a new manuscript.  I reach for my grandmother and other literary grandmothers.  The cadences of Meridel LeSeuer resound in me.  I want to celebrate her, sing her poems from Rites of Ancient Ripening and roll in the sound of her voice.  This is from her essay, "The Ancient People and the Newly Come":

Born out of the caul of winter in the north, in the swing and circle of the horizon, I am rocked in the ancient land. As a child I first read the scriptures written on the scroll of moisture by wolf and rabbit, by the ancient people and the newly come. In the beginning the century the Indian smoke still mingled with ours. The frontier of the whites was violent, already injured by vast seizures and massacres. The winter nightmares of fear poisoned the plains nights with psychic airs of theft and utopia. The stolen wheat in the cathedral-like granaries cried out for vengeance.

I know these roots: populist, the struggle of the worker against the corporation, the striving of people for fairness and dignity against greed.  She writes about the depression, about mortgages and foreclosure, about her grandmother losing her home.   The beginning of the unions, the fight for an 8 hour workday, for safe working conditions, for a system of social security.  She writes about her mother's effort to earn money only to have her own bank account seized by the bank to pay her husband's debts.   She writes about being reared by three strong women who worked hard to maintain a life despite the "drunkenness, chicanery, and violence" of men in their life.   Violence, she says, is linear.  Love is round, curved like the earth and horizon, like the cheek and breast of the women.

How lucky we are that she sat down to write.  In her Journal in 1930 she wrote:

Whittle myself down to the edge of suffering. We do not know ourselves except when we suffer... In joy I know only myself, in sorrow I know others.  In happiness we are seperete (sic)... In suffering we are fused.

Her strength is in the language, the ability to speak against injustice, to use the power of her voice to tell about the lives of those the world might forget, the poor and disenfranchised.  She inhabits a mythic space of a "green girl,"  a daughter or Persephone going into darkness and also she inhabits the strong mother and earth, the Demeter who can punish with drought and cold or bless us with harvest.   Meridel strikes the iron bough and from her words spring roses -- a "bonfire of roses."

In her essay, "The Ancient People and Newly Come," I found these words, a story about a country dance and the night, outdoors, where men and women would disappear for awhile in "a bonfire of roses." The image brings together her physicality as a writer, always in the sensual body, the use of landscape as a metaphor for emergence, the growth of seed and bud and blossom. Roses also are associated with Bread and Roses, the slogan of the 1912 workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. "A police attack on mothers and children at the trained station prompted a Congressional hearing that publicized the strikers' low wages and barebones living conditions."   She was writing about her birth and early family life on the prairie.  One of her images are the small houses that dot the landscape:
Let yourself down, as if under water, into these lost walls, to hunt for treasure, to illuminate violence with meaning. Under sea-strange light these little houses glimmer in memory, powerful as radium. (Ripenings, p 53)
When I heard Meridel LeSueur speak, her voice drove into me like a train. Here was a woman with a writer's voice akin to God: deep, resonant, and calling. I borrowed a phrase of Meridel LeSueur for the title of a poem that pays homage to her: "Bonfire of Roses" in Night Train Red Dust.

Work Cited

LeSueur, Meridel. Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980. Edited and with an Introduction by Elaine Hedges. The Feminist Press. Old Westbury, New York. c1982.   Print.

August 20, 2012

A Writer's Leap of Faith

How do you make a living?  Some writers can support themselves doing their writing.  Others do other things, like I have.  It was a choice, always.  I wanted to buy a house, rear a child, pay for medical insurance, and I just didn't feel comfortable with the unknowns of a writing career and took the "safe" bet.  I worked Mondays through Fridays 8:00 am to 4:30 pm as a social worker.  Was that a good choice for my writing?  Wallace Stegner was a very good poet who spent years working for an insurance company.

Of course, in today's economy, not much is safe.  Because of technologies, out-sourcing and other reasons, the economy and our work has changed.  In the field of social services, privatization is common. Down-sizing is frequent. Work is often more project-based and if you can carry your own insurance and retirement plan -- and operate essentially as a private contractor -- so much the better.  Nowadays, there may not be much difference between careers when it comes to security and benefits.

It used to be that some people could rely on steady employment with one company or agency until retiring with a pension. Things were comfortable. I had that opportunity, or nearly did. I worked for a government social service agency for thirty years and probably should have stayed with it until I reached the "Rule of 90." For younger workers, it's already unreachable because of changes in the union contracts. The benefit has been taken away; they can never achieve it. But for some of us lucky enough to have been hired many years ago, the Rule of 90 is that magic number arrived at by adding your age plus years of service. When the sum was 90, you qualified for a pension at about 50% of your earnings.  It was an incentive.

I didn't wait. I'd been juggling creative work (poetry and adjunct teaching) with this very steady, reliable job for too long.  If financial comfort was my only goal, my decision would have been different. I was fifty five years old, at the point when I began to clearly understand that time is finite, and none of us know just how finite. I talked to others who made a living in different fields, who were used to the changes in the market and the ups and downs of a career in the arts.   I talked to the counselor at my retirement fund. He told me if I could tell him how many years I was going to live, then he could tell me what my best option was.

So I left my job.  My last day was August 31, 2011.  They called it an 'early retirement.'  But I never considered for a minute the idea of actual retirement. I was funding my dream. After thirty years, I did qualify for a small pension, 40% of my earnings. It was the kind of money that some people make with a minimum wage job. I decided to accept that as a base rate (an idea that many of my coworkers found horrible), and I would make up the rest. It was a leap of faith. This is the story of my first year.

When I left my job, I was Duluth Poet Laureate and in the midst of a large community writing project.  For a year, I'd been doing workshops and collecting work that related to life's transitions -- a timely topic for me.  These I had edited and published (the book is called Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions).  In September 2011, I was beginning a series of seven publication readings and celebrations. This took me through October and November.

In November, I participated in NANOWRIMO, National Novel Writing Month, an online annual
event. Writers who are interested sign up and receive regular and encouraging emails as they document their progress.  I completed the goal and wrote 50,000 words.  A little of it was good; more of it had possibility. Although it was exhausting to churn out 2000 words a day, it was empowering.  I could do it if I had to.

In December, I felt as if I were falling through space. Suddenly, I was unmoored, without a time clock. I didn't have to be anyplace at all at any particular time. After thirty years of habitually managing a caseload, it was unnerving. However, I wanted to make myself wait before looking for a job. I applied for two arts grants and wrote new poems.  I sent work in to be considered for publication. I had some success with publication.

I should note that my partner and I do weekly "strategic planning meetings" for ourselves to establish weekly goals for our art, our marketing and arts related activity. These have allowed us to recognize the successes and stay on track. Ideas have a better chance of being realized when we break them down into steps and follow through.

At the end of December, I contacted the dean at a community college to inquire about adjunct teaching positions.  I was assigned one on-line class teaching freshman composition.  I was thrilled!  I get to teach from my core passion in life!

In the meantime, my time was filled with writing related work. I judged a poetry contest in February. I had a four week class in poetry at the University for Seniors (as a volunteer; this is not a paid position), and a few more community workshops as poet laureate of Duluth.  My on line class began in March and it fit well into my schedule.

In April, I organized a reading for National Poetry Month. In May, I was able to earn money doing an arts tour (workshops and readings) with another respected writer. We traveled over the northeast region of Northern Minnesota, visiting libraries and meeting with people in the community.

In June, we moved. Moving entails a certain amount of chaos. And the new house needed work. I immediately began stripping wall paper and painting.  I also taught a four week summer session writing class. It was an intensive, but very satisfying to see the students develop their writing skills.  If somebody asked me about my writing, I stared blankly at them.  But in actuality, I had written a few poems.

In July, I received an artist fellowship for a new manuscript based on my grandmother's journey. I began research to learn more about her historical and cultural context at the IRRC to study some oral histories of Finnish American homesteads in Minnesota in the early nineteen hundreds.

I had poems accepted at a poetry program run by a radio station and received a free copy of an anthology of Midwest LBGT writers (my work had been accepted). After moving from the other house, we evaluated our possibilities.  Could our old house be a gallery? (My partner is a media and sound artist).  Could it be our work/writing retreat?  To save money, we decided to rent it to somebody else. This allows us to focus our work and activities here in the new place.

In August, I spent two days selling my book at a local art fair.  Book sales: six.  I decided art fairs are not good places to sell books.  Although I enjoyed talking with the people who came to the table, sitting for eight hours a day underlined the fact that I like to be active.  It's true that the more active I was as a writer, doing workshops, readings, and other community events, the more books I sold through bookstores.

Now it's time to do more creative work again.  I'll be teaching as an adjunct.  The class assignments are unpredictable, but for me this works all right.  I have flexibility and time in my schedule.

The McKnight Foundation has been doing research on past fellows of their art funding.  They wrote to me and showed me my star and globe diagrams showing my artistic development. Click on this link to read fascinating information about artist's careers:   I realized that when I claimed myself as a writer and took creative risks to get my work out in the public, then I became more successful.  It was the very thing that helped my work move forward.  It takes courage, initiative, project management, persistence and networks. It takes work, patience, creativity, even good dreaming.  Why aren't we teaching writers about this?  It's valuable experience not just for being a writer or an artist but for work of many kinds -- work these days.

This month is the first anniversary of my new life as a writer.  This year, writing and art related work has added a lot to my income.  I've had some work published, and I have on a new project.  I'm happy.  

July 12, 2012

Advice for Poets: Theodore Roethke

The first poem that I remember:

My Papa's Waltz
by Theodore Roethke

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

For this poem and more information about these poems by Roethke, click on this link:

When I read it now, I see so much more than that dizzying waltz.  In these few lines, a full narrative emerges with conflict, characters, desire, and suspense.  It is told in second person--the pronoun you addresses the father.  There is great contrast: the poem has death suspended within the waltzing.

It speaks so clearly of a relationship with a father, a retrospective: the speaker "hung on like death" and on the last note, was "Still clinging to your shirt."  The action becomes symbolic, metaphoric and it is a traditional, "formal" poem, made with regular meter and end rhyme.  It's brilliant.

Later on, in college, I came across another of his famous poems, "I Knew a Woman."  The first lines:

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!

His language pleases so much-- it is as if he was able to bring the waltzing into this sweet homage.  This rhythm and movement is characteristic of his poetic voice.  It is also in the poem, "In a Dark Time."

A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

This excerpt reflects the same movement and even things.  Notice in "I Knew a Woman" he spoke of a bright container, and here "All natural shapes."  It is as if he notices the profile, and the same darkness of "My Papa's Waltz" has grown here to a solitary, grown-up dark night of the soul.   This poem has similar word repetitions, effective use of meter, alliteration and rhyme.  So today, when I happened upon this poem (available as a broadside from Copper Canyon Press), I was delighted:

On Poetry and Craft
by Theodore Roethke

In poetry, there are no casual readers.
Nothing seen, nothing said.
The lyric is almost forgotten in this time of sawing and snoring and scraping.
Energy is the soul of poetry. Explosive active language.
Live in a perpetual great astonishment.
Rhythm depends on expecting.
The literal—that grave of all the dull.
I need the botanist’s leaf more than the poet’s flower.
Put it this way: I detest dogs, but adore wolves.
Eternal apprenticeship is the life of the true poet.
That intense profound sharp longing to make a true poem.
Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.
Art is our defense against hysteria and death.
If we muddle and thump through a paraphrase, with side comments, however brilliant, we still do not have the poem.
Talent talks; genius does.
Poetry is an act of mischief.
A poetry of longing: not for escape, but for a greater reality.
The greatest assassin of life is haste.
Make ready for your gifts. Prepare. Prepare.

June 8, 2012

Fail Better

"To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail... failure is his world and to shrink from it is desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living... " (Samuel Beckett)

I've said I'm a poet, but I don't know exactly what that is. From now on, let's define a poet as somebody who writes in broken lines as opposed to unbroken. 

I deliberate over what comes onto the page. Right now, I work on tensions and opposites. I'm interested in traction and think that I can create it out of history, memoir, image, string and paper clips. Language is a system of wheels and pulleys, a contraption of sorts, that one can ride. 

I'm moving, in other words. I'm going to several places at once. I turn to Samuel Beckett and return to Zadie Smith. 

"Fail Better" by Zadie Smith (The Guardian, 2007)

June 7, 2012

The Pleasure Principle by Philip Larkin

According to Philip Larkin:

It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves of the simpler aspects of things normally regarded as complicated. Take, for instance, the writing of a poem. It consists of three stages: the first is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it. The stages are interdependent and all necessary. If there has been no preliminary feeling, the device has nothing to reproduce and the reader will experience nothing. If the second stage has not been well done, the device will not deliver the goods, or will deliver only a few goods to a few people, or will stop delivering them after an absurdly short while. And if there is no third stage, no successful reading, the poem can hardly be said to exist in a practical sense at all.

To read the entire essay, go to

May 14, 2012

Reading Is More Than Seeing

Reading Is More Than Seeing: Reading with Virginia Woolf 

Writing is more than seeing; of course, it involves all of the senses of perception. It is mind or consciousness inviting mind. In "How Should One Read a Book?" Virginia Woolf wrote:  

"Yet few people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticise at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this, and soon you find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite. The thirty-two chapters of a novel—if we consider how to read a novel first—are an attempt to make something as formed and controlled as a building: but words are more impalpable than bricks; reading is a longer and more complicated process than seeing."

I am intrigued with the thought of being fellow-worker and accomplice. Is reading and writing a complicity between two people who don't know, and don't need to know, each other?  Perhaps it is like stitching; the writer has run the thread of his or her spool through the eyes and rings and needle of the sewing machine. The writer is the top stitch and the reader, the bottom stitch, a thread that is grasped and pulled by the top thread. They exist perfectly in a balanced tension on the fabric and together make a seam.  

I myself, as writer and reader, am on both sides. Here are Virginia Woolf's thoughts about poetry:

"Thus the desire grows upon us to have done with half-statements and approximations; to cease from searching out the minute shades of human character, to enjoy the greater abstractness, the purer truth of fiction. Thus we create the mood, intense and generalised, unaware of detail, but stressed by some regular, recurrent beat, whose natural expression is poetry; and that is the time to read poetry when we are almost able to write it."

"The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is not other sensations except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then--how sudden and complete is our immersion! There is nothing to catch hold of; nothing to stay us in our flight.... The poet is always contemporary. Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections. The intensity of poetry covers an immense range of emotion."  

Virginia Woolf places an amazing charge in the poet's hands. Poetry, the essence of language, is nothing but spirits, liquor brewed of rhythm and sound that alters or heightens our perception. In poetry, in metaphor, one thing becomes something else. The pattern that emerges reaches beyond the poem. The meanings are many and always new. 

The mood while reading of a poem is very close to the mood while writing one. In music, the strings of an instrument can set to vibrating other strings.  More than composing, it is  tremolo and breath on the ear's hammer and anvil; it is the vibration between the instrument and the room and what's inside our body. In poetry, one has the vowel, consonant, breath, and heartbeat -- arranged as if it were music -- for the body of the listener or reader. Writing is more than telling; it creates an experience that circumscribes another.  

April 24, 2012

Creative Restlessness

I prize unstructured time. Unfettered, I go to and fro in my house and along my road and into the city, looking for what I can't name.  I am between projects, a place most delicious and terrifying because it awakens a yearning without cease.

In my house, I have been cooking risotto and making hand-made almond coconut macaroons. In my garden, I make way for the new by pulling out last year's dry branches, each handful crumbles and scatters a fine dust in the air that will be washed away by rain.  Underneath, I notice the new growth, soft and thick leaves of mint.  On the road this morning, I met the fox hunting.  I am hunting as well, although I don't know for what.  In the city, I wander, glancing in the side-yards and alleys and lanes.

I found this today, a poem called "Restlessness" by D.H. Lawrence*:
"I will escape from the hollow room, the box of light,
And be out in the bewildering darkness, which is always fecund, which might
Mate my hungry soul with a germ of its womb.
But oh, it is not enough, it is all no good.
There is something I want to feel in my running blood,
Something I want to touch; I must hold my face to the rain,
I must hold my face to the wind, and let it explain
Me its life as it hurries in secret."

Everywhere I go, I am looking.  It is the same restlessness that came upon me when my father died and I, suddenly preoccupied with real estate, searched and searched.  I thought I understood death. When I look back, I realize I looked for something that had to do with him.   Did I think I would find him -- he who had disappeared from the face of the earth?  No, but I did find some trace of something he had spoken.

It retrospect, I was searching for freedom, for a new language, for a place where I have not stood before but needed in order to see.  I generally look outward, but when it comes, it seems to come from within.

*read the full text of DH Lawrence's poem at

March 28, 2012

The Poetry of Place: Northern Minnesota

I search for poetry that rises from the roots, flows like the winding St Louis River to Lake Superior, and surges inside, wave against wave. I search for moments of the past that cast their light upon the hands. It is in the body, visceral and geologic, in the stones broken for mineral deposits, in the cities on ice. It is in the scent of wintergreen and yarrow. I search for the knock and echo of the pileated woodpecker, the call of the bittern and the Canadian goose. In the hidden things, the just whelped wolf pups playing amid the tangle of shadow and light, the endless roads taken by the wild and civilized or the wind, in the encounters and surprises, in breath and word, I find my music.

Writing about place offers poets the opportunity to explore stories that are layered and deep. There is a wisdom in the landscape and secrets spoken without our knowing. Writing that begins or ends with the land is a way to ground ourselves, hold to the elemental and enduring, and access the part of history or heritage right before us. "The Blessing" by James Wright begins:

March 19, 2012

Resources for Poets

Here are some useful links for poets. The databases offer listings of places that publish poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.  Other resources I've listed provide information about opportunities, grants, conferences, classes and literary events.  The last links are specific to Minnesota poets.  Check Poets & Writers and AWP if you live elsewhere.  

Databases of Literary Magazines

This database lists over 4000 markets for fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Its features include a submission tracker and weekly email that let's you know what's new and what's no longer available. It's free, but they do ask for donations.

Poets & Writers:
The website features a database of literary magazines (over 700). Poets & Writers is a good resource for writers; it features articles about writers and writing, presses, and it also has useful information about deadlines for contests, calls for submissions, and writer's conferences.*
Directory of CLMP Member Publishers
CLMP stands for Council of Literary Magazines and Publishers. Basically, this is a resource for literary magazines and publishers, but this list of members will guide you to several member/ publishers who are committed to independent publishing and quality programs.
Resources for Information and Support
This website offers profiles of Minnesota artists and writers, opportunities, a calendar of events, and calls for proposals.  You can set up your own profile and post your events.
Lake Superior Writers:
This is the Duluth writer's organization that supports literary arts. The Duluth Poet Laureate program, classes, contests and information is available for members ($30)
The Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis
This organization offers classes, mentors and literary events.  They administer the McKnight Fellowship grants and other contests like the Loft Mentor Award.  Membership is about $60 for out-state members (now it appears you can donate smaller amounts and be considered a member).
Association of Writers and Writers Programs (AWP)
This national organization connects writers and writing programs. Membership (individual one year is $65) gives you access to a magazine, calendar, articles, and resources. AWP has an annual conference and book fair.   
New Pages
This website is useful for writers. It has listings of literary magazines, calls for submission, reviews of literary magazines and books, and interesting links.   
Moving Poems
This website features "best of the web" videopoetry.   
Poetry Websites:
The Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, is an independent literary
organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.
The Academy of American Poets
This website offers a listing of poets, poetry, essays about teaching and writing, interviews, and other useful information.   
Arts Funding in Minnesota

Arrowhead Regional Arts Council 
to see the listing of all the Regional Arts Councils
The ARAC serves the Arrowhead region of Minnesota.  It awards grants for individual artists and organizations. See the website for application guidelines and deadlines. 
Minnesota State Arts Board
MSAB is our state agency that promotes and help develop the arts.  See the website for individual and organizational grant opportunities and deadlines.