Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Poem of the week

(It's not really seasonal, but what the heck. I love the ending of this.)


Tonight there must be people who are getting what they want.
I let my oars fall into the water.
Good for them. Good for them, getting what they want.

The night is so still that I forget to breathe.
The dark air is getting colder. Birds are leaving.

Tonight there are people getting just what they need.

The air is so still that it seems to stop my heart.
I remember you in a black and white photograph
taken this time of some year. You were leaning against
a half-shed tree, standing in the leaves the tree had lost.

When I finally exhale it takes forever to be over.

Tonight, there are people who are so happy,
that they have forgotten to worry about tomorrow.

Somewhere, people have entirely forgotten about tomorrow.
My hand trails in the water.
I should not have dropped those oars. Such a soft wind.

--Jennifer Michael Hecht
from The Next Ancient World

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Good news and good wishes

Back from Thanksgiving travels. I had a good one (even though it snowed... sigh!) and I hope y'all did, too.

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Happy news from Valparaiso Poetry Review, which has announced its Pushcart Prize nominations for this year -- see editor Ed Byrne's blog for details:

John Balaban: “Finishing Up the Novel After Some Delay
Barbara Crooker: “Lemons
W.D. Ehrhart: “Coaching Winter Track in Time of War
Anne Haines: “Swallowed
H. Palmer Hall: “Vietnam Roulette
Diane Lockward: “Temptation by Water

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And good wishes go out to E Street Band musician Danny Federici, who has taken a leave of absence from the band's current tour to undergo treatment for melanoma. He's an original member of the band and it's hard to imagine their sound without him. You can see the official announcement over at Bruce Springsteen's site; I hope to see an announcement there in the future with words like "back on the job" and "full recovery"...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pluggity pluggity plug

Just a few Good Things (sorry, had a rare moment of channeling Martha Stewart there) from around Ye Olde Intarweb that I'd like to pass along.
  1. Charlie's newest chapbook is now available -- order it from New Michigan Press or see his blog to get one directly from him. I'm intrigued by the concept of this one; it should be interesting reading.

  2. Got my subscription copy of the spankin'-new journal Knockout the other day. I haven't had a chance to dig into it properly yet, but I skimmed through it and there is some really good stuff in there. Also, I think this journal has the highest percentage of "people I know" (if you count both people I've met in real life and people I "know" via Ye Olde Blogosphere) of any journal I have ever seen. Which doesn't mean anything particularly, but it's fun. Anyway, if you're looking for a new journal to check out, this looks to be a promising one. Plus, they are making a point of donating some of their proceeds to help fight genocide in Sudan, which is cool as heck.

  3. Speaking of donations, have you checked out Free Rice? If you're a word nerd like I am, you may find yourself getting seriously addicted to this one. It's a vocabulary quiz and a donation against hunger! For every word you get right, they donate 10 grains of rice. The vocabulary words start out pretty easy and get very, ah, interesting as you go on. They tell you your vocabulary level as you go along; the highest you can get is a 50. I've actually hit 50 a couple of times and stayed there for a word or two before missing one and dropping back down -- I can usually sustain a level of around 47 with some consistency. My favorite word so far: cacography. (It means "bad handwriting" and I totally got it right by seeing it as a blend of "cacophony" and "calligraphy" because I rock.)
If you're celebrating Thanksgiving this week, I hope you have a good one. If you're traveling, safe travels to you! Enjoy your turkey, or your tofurkey, or your frozen pizza, or whatever you may be enjoying. Do it because I said so, dammit.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Happy things

First, you should dash over to Suzanne's place and congratulate her on some well-deserved good news!

Go on. I'll wait right here.

* * * * *

So, yesterday was a "take the day off for poetry" day. I listened to some downloaded poetry readings and podcasts on the drive up to the University of Indianapolis, which put me nicely in a poetry-ish frame of mind. That is to say, I was noticing the world the way I do when I'm ready to write: the little sounds of things, the way the wind blew crows around, the kestrel that dived into the median grass as I blew by on the highway. (And after the class, I went out to my car and heard the honk-honk of a flock of Canada geese. I looked up into the sky -- nothing nowhere. Geese? Hello? Then I looked about thirty feet right smack in front of me and there they were, marching in single file, wagging their big fat goosey butts as they marched, crossing the parking lot headed for who knows where. For some reason it made me laugh.)

The class was from 12:30-1:50, an undergrad creative writing class whose professor had generously opened up some spaces for community members to sit in on Mark Doty's guest-teaching session. I don't know how the students in the class felt about being invaded by random Hoosier poets, but I thought it was really cool to get the opportunity. We'd been asked to read the "heaven" poems from School of the Arts, and Mark started off by talking a bit about the genesis of those poems, then talking in more detail about the first poem in the book, "Heaven for Helen." That segued very nicely into a Q&A session that quickly became more general than just talking about the heaven poems; I was impressed by how well-prepared and interested the students were. Not all of them spoke up, but a lot of them did, and they asked some good, thoughtful questions.

Interesting bit about School of the Arts: Mark talked about how for many years he'd written with a goal of finding something to affirm, and how this was terribly necessary for a very long time especially at the height of the AIDS crisis in the gay community, when affirmation was in short supply. But as time went on (and I'm really paraphrasing here, but I think I'm close enough to what he said), that reach towards affirmation became something he was just doing out of habit. So as he worked on this book he wanted to resist that habit -- to just let the difficult be difficult, not trying to make it better or fix things.

I have always thought of Doty as a poet who seeks closure, as contrasted with someone like D.A. Powell who deliberately resists closure; to some extent I think what I read as "closure" is at least partly what Doty sees as "affirmation." So is this book successful in its resistance of that tendency? Good question. I'd like to reread the book now with that in mind. Strictly from a "how do you put a book of poetry together" viewpoint, I found this particular insight really fascinating, though.

Anyway, after a good Q&A period, he had us do a writing exercise. I don't always do very well with in-class exercises, or with exercises in general, really. But listening to poetry on the drive up, and the discussion in class, had apparently put me in a good writing frame of mind, and I did manage to come up with something that I think is worth working with. So I'm very pleased about that.

(It was a pretty simple exercise; after talking about the "heaven" poems, each of which is about what the idea of heaven might be like for various people and animals, we were to think of someone -- human or animal -- and first make a list of words about them, maybe phrases. Then we were to take those words/phrases/lines and write a "Heaven for..." poem for them. I was momentarily stumped about who to choose, then thought what the hell and wrote for one of my cats -- and then realized that heaven for a cat would probably involve a certain amount of ripping open small warm mammals, ewww -- and ended up writing basically a small poem in praise of the cat's carnivorous nature, which was not what I expected, but also wasn't the sappy-sweet poem I'm always afraid of writing if I try to write about my cats.)

We talked a bit about what we'd gotten out of the exercise, and then class was pretty much over. A little group of us hung around chatting with Mark and getting books signed, and then I had several hours to fill before the reading. I'd decided against hauling along my laptop, but I did have a couple of books, my journal, and a sheaf of poems I wanted to work on. So I ended up setting up camp in the university library, and while I didn't do any stunningly amazing revisions, I did nudge several poems along in a productive manner and found one that I decided was actually finished.

Went out and got a little late lunch/early dinner, then back to the library where I curled up in a comfy chair and read until time for the reading. It was such a lovely day, reading and writing all afternoon in the library. Can I please win the lottery and live that way all the time, please?

The reading was good, though the only thing he read that I hadn't heard him read before was the excerpt from Dog Years. He did read -- as he probably usually does -- "Lost in the Stars" and "Heaven for Paul," which are two of my favorites of his to listen to. And he told a funny story about talking to a guy on the plane, who asked him what sort of stuff he writes; not wanting to say poetry, he said memoirs. "Oh!" said the guy, "whose memoirs?" At which point he looks out into the audience and says "Oh, I don't know.... Britney Spears?" Heh. So even though there weren't any real surprises in the reading, I'm glad I went; I enjoy his readings, and think he presents his work well. There was a short Q&A after the reading, less interesting than the earlier discussion in class, but not as excruciating as those things can be; and then he went out and signed books. I didn't hang around for that, having already gotten my copy of Dog Years signed, and wanting to get home to my two hungry carnivores who hadn't had their dinner yet.

Anyway, a nice day all around.

Hope you have all had at least one all-around nice day this week, or have one to look forward to in the near future.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

National Book Awards

The NBA winners have been announced.

In Young People's Literature: Sherman Alexie for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (which I actually just bought and can't wait to read! I love a good YA novel now and then, and I really like Sherman Alexie's work)

In Poetry: Robert Hass for Time and Materials

In Non-Fiction: Tim Weiner for Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA

In Fiction: Denis Johnson for Tree of Smoke

I don't know why I found myself so interested in these awards; I don't know any of the nominees (well, I met Sherman Alexie for thirty seconds once, which hardly counts) and I haven't read most of the books. I guess a little part of me wants the writing life to be glamorous. Which it's never going to be. Maybe if you're Sherman Alexie or Robert Hass you get a little moment of glamor now and then (okay, if you're Sherman Rockstar Alexie maybe you get a little more than that). But for most of us, we're just thrilled on the odd occasion that we get an email from somebody saying hey, I liked your poem. I mean, when that happens? It makes my day. No, it makes my WEEK. Actually, I've had a couple of very nice compliments from poets I seriously admired (the kind you replay over and over in your mind for years), and I don't think any award could feel better than that.

I guess the moral of that story is, if you find poems that you like, drop a line to a poet now and then to let them know. Because you can't give out National Book Awards, but you can give out compliments -- and sometimes, it really matters to someone.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Animals and other people's stories

HA. I wrote a poem and I put the animal in my attic in it AND I put the people in the Dallas airport in it AND I put the futility of telling anyone's story in it. I have no idea whether it all hangs together as a poem or not, but I hadn't written anything I thought might be revisable for a while (is "revisable" a word?), so I'm happy to have something down in words anyway. I could have called it "crap that keeps me up at night" but I didn't.

Thursday I get to sit in on a class with Mark Doty in the early afternoon, then he's got a reading in the evening. It's up in Indianapolis, and I can't see driving 120 miles round-trip to come back home in between, so I'll have to find a place to hang out in Indy for a few hours. I'm trying to decide whether to take the laptop and hang out in a library or coffee shop with wi-fi, or just take a couple of books and hang out in a library or coffee shop with a comfy chair. I'll take my journal and some poems to revise, regardless; with any luck the class will nudge me into working. If it's a nice day, I could go to the zoo -- I haven't been there in ages. Anyway, it's always nice to take a day off work in the name of poetry.

Watched a really terrific tennis match on TV this evening -- the WTA year-end championship match between Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova. It went well over three hours and actually set a record as the longest best-of-three match ever. Henin won, but it was pretty darned close. For a while there I wasn't sure whether I was watching "Survivor: Madrid" or a tennis match. Fun stuff.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The animal in my attic

There is some sort of animal scrabbling about in my attic. Must be a squirrel or a raccoon. It seems to move around at night. The cats are occasionally intrigued; I mostly cringe. I guess there are people who specialize in evicting such animals. Maybe I'll get a poem out of it anyway.

* * * * *

This blog has been like Short Attention Span Theater lately.

* * * * *
Books and journals are piling up. I don't need to take a month off work to write ... I need to take a month off work to read. And yes, when you work in a library, sometimes books just follow you home. We can renew most things over and over again indefinitely (unless somebody else wants it badly enough to recall it), which is kind of a blessing but kind of a curse too.

In a related event, I have made a small concession to middle age and purchased one of those little wallet-size magnifiers. What I really need to do is go to the eye doctor and get stronger bifocals. Sigh.

* * * * *

I've just recently discovered the blog "A Voice Box," which has audio recordings of poetry readings from the Bay Area. It is exceedingly cool.

Generally at lunchtime I spend 15-30 minutes walking, listening to music on my cute little iPod shuffle. I think I'm going to try loading that thing up with poems and listening to those instead. There are quite a few good poetry podcasts these days, and I just don't have time to listen to them, or attention span. But maybe they can accompany me while I walk.

I might miss the music, though. Well, we can give it a try.

If only I could walk and read at the same time. That would be efficient.

* * * * *

Really liked this poem by Sharon Bryan on Poetry Daily: "Bass Bass" -- I like how Bryan's language is very playful but has a definite serious undertone (more than an undertone). Also, my father was a bass player, so I have a soft spot for poems with a bass in them. That's long-a bass, not the fish. Though I have nothing against fish poems.

I do like the playfulness, though. I imagine a lot of poets started out by just being fascinated with language, the ways you can play with it. I remember when I was a little kid, both of my parents used to play language games with me -- for example, my dad always called the elevator the "alli-grue-a-tater" which never failed to make me laugh. (I was kind of a little baby word nerd, I admit it.) It's easy to forget how to play like that. I forget, a lot. Maybe that's the assignment I should give myself: just write silly shit for a while and have some fun with it.

Assignment. See? Already it isn't play. Good grief.

* * * * *

What I really want is cookies. Coooooooookies.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Artistic hubris redux

Walking through various airports last week, I found myself looking at people and thinking about how every single one of them has a story, or many. Every one of the hundreds of people I saw in those airports, and every one of the thousands of people I flew over in one jet-fueled tin can or another, has a story that is to them the most important story ever, the story his or her life depends on. Every one of those people has this whole other world inside that I will never see.

I've had sorrows and I've had joys. Mine are no greater than anyone's -- I'm tempted to say "and no less" but there is always someone out there who's got it better and someone out there who's got it far, far worse. The point being, none of it's unique. There's really nothing about any of my stories that's any more important or any more interesting than anyone's. Nothing. We all love and we all suffer, and the particulars of each are of interest only to ourselves, really. (If we're lucky, ourselves and a few close companions.)

I see friends going through what they go through and while I feel for them, for their griefs and their celebrations, part of me can't help but stand apart and think: yeah, that's what life is, and we just keep going on, so what of it? Is that horrible of me? That's probably horrible of me. But there you have it. There are all those million million stories out there, and what difference if I tell mine, or yours, or his, or anyone's?

When I write, lately, I get bogged down in one of two things. I get bogged down in the overly particular, the overly personal, the endless I, I, I. And then I think, dude, who the f*ck are you that anyone should care. Or: I get bogged down in the grand sweep of philosophizing, the stupid royal "we." And again I think, dude, why should anybody care, plus you sound like a blithering egomaniac with your grand pronouncements.

Tell me something. Point me to a poem that will show me why these stories matter. Give me something that walks the zone between the too-personal -- the small and claustrophobic -- and the grand but remote sweep of epic. Point me to a poem that will remind me why we do this. Because right now, just at this very moment here in my living room with a cat napping against my knee and newspapers piling up unread and the TV on mute and cars going by on Walnut Street headed south towards who knows where, I seem to have misplaced the reasons for poetry.

I'm sure I'll remember on my own eventually. I usually do. But just in case: point me to a poem that reminds you why. Maybe that will help.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Legal oddities and artistic hubris

Tomorrow is Election Day, and we've got a hotly contested mayoral race here. In Indiana, it is illegal to sell alcohol during the hours that polls are open (6 am to 6 pm). Considering some of the people we've elected before in this state, I'm not sure it does much good to make sure we're not roaring drunk when we vote...

* * * * *

Lotus just brought me a paper clip. Seriously, he found it, jumped up onto the coffee table in front of me, and presented it to me. He is very pleased with himself. I would have a cat with an office supply fetish.

* * * * *

Not much poetry going on around here the past few days. I think the Muse is peeved with me for not picking up on the poems she was trying to foist upon me out in Santa Fe.

However, a week from Thursday is the Mark Doty workshop & reading, which should be fun. We've been asked to read all of the "Heaven" poems from his most recent book in preparation for the class. Not a bad homework assignment, methinks.

What with running off to Santa Fe, craziness at work, and other stuff, I am behind schedule for planning my grant-funded manuscript-putting-together retreat. With any luck, that will happen soon. I am oddly nervous about doing it. Other people seem to have more confidence in my ability to do this than I do. Of course, I think that's because I know the scope of the task ahead of me and I'm being more realistic. *grin*

The artistic ego is a funny thing. It takes enormous hubris, I think, just to put words on the page -- and even more to send them off somewhere for an editor's consideration. "Hi, this stuff came out of my brain and I think a bunch of people need to read it." And yet, every artist & writer I have ever met has, however well disguised, a pretty deep sense of inadequacy about their own work. It's a funny mix of egotism and insecurity that fuels the creative mind.

I mean really. There are thousands and thousands and thousands of books out there, and I want to add to that deluge ... why? But for whatever reason, I do want to.

Go figure.

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Remember: vote early and often!