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Jun. 10th, 2011


Poetry's Surprises

I’ve cut a swathe through the life of a historical figure, written an almost 200 page draft I’m sending to my writing group and Peter to see if the narrative running through make sense. The poems are honed down and have some good imagery, but I’ll want to know which images might be toned down or tossed, and which developed. While the manuscript is with them, I’ve been thinking about ways to strengthen individual poems. I’ve straightened out the mess of my notes on a complicated life, but now everything looks a bit too tidy and needs some kicking around, a few holes smashed to look out to wider views.

Metaphors can make us leap from one thing to another, but any kind of contrast can wake us up. Tomorrow my husband and I celebrate our 28th anniversary, which makes me think how the power of contrast is built into most vows: for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live. All those years ago I had my mind on wildflowers, baking a carrot cake for forty people, ironing my cotton dress, as well as love, but right now life is simpler and I had time to get my nails done. In a day spa with pale blue walls, water running over stones, gentle music, and a request posted on the door to turn off cell phones, Shawna patiently tended to my feet with files, creams, and paint. Her demeanor was suitably low key– she was chatty, but soft spoken – and I loved finding out that she learned about Madam C. J. Walker in her cosmetology school. But the biggest kick came when she told me how she loves to watch fast cars on the Speed Channel, something I didn’t know existed. The thought of those loud racing cars, while listening to New Age music, gave me a shock of inspiration.

So I’m off to make leaps in poetry, looking for ways to draw in the unexpected. And to have a celebratory weekend, too. Maybe with a love poem that allows for the variables of a long time together, and just, I hope, gushy enough.

For Poetry Friday Roundup, please visit: Picture Book of the Day

May. 20th, 2011


Revising: Or Giving Your Words a Whirl

My poems begin with people who did something that made me stop, frozen with hard-beating heart, the way I did as a child playing Statues after a friend grabbed my hand and spun me around.

Then there’s the wandering through libraries, collecting armloads of books about that person, the places where she lived, the company she kept, her moment in history. I muse over incidents I find as I stalk the character from home to work, try to peer into her cereal bowl or what’s left on her plate, and the softness of her pillow, and how long she might lie awake. All along I’m taking notes, which I spend a long time ordering not just through days but years. Though, of course, sometimes childhood moments appear smack in the middle of life as a grown up, so while admiring chronology, I don’t want to pledge to its logic.

I’ve put a lot of poems in order recently, mostly happy with the flow of events, my word choices, echoes, and imagery. Now I want to shake the poems like doormats in spring air and see what flies, or what’s left in the spaces where old dust was wedged. I want to spin things around and check angles I missed. I’ve lingered with images, wondering what the tracks in the snow, cobblestones on Boston streets, old moccasins, an obsession with Cleopatra and swans could tell me. I’ve set down my guesses, but it’s time to guess again, look deeper in the tracks or around the corners of those narrow streets. We want people to read poems more than once, and that means we have to make our way through them, I don’t know, a hundred times? There’s no need to count but there’s plenty of need to backtrack and set things awhirl once again. I begin with wonder, proceed with some knowing, and now want to return, for a while, to the state of seeing things anew.

Please visit Poetry Friday Roundup at The Drift Record where Julie Larios writes about a book of poems by Stacy Gnall called Heart First into the Forest, novels in verse, and the compression, elegance, and mystery poetry and fairy tales have in common. She’s convinced me to order Heart First into the Forest, because reading other peoples’ poems can set me loose from my own predictable ways, fling me into the right sort of dizzy and open-minded state for this stage of revising.

May. 19th, 2011


Last Chapters

Not that I have much familiarity with good housekeeping, something I expect I’ve recorded too much here, but what sometimes gets me through chores is being able to fill a vase with flowers at the end. I like the last touches. The neat-at-last stacks, the fluffed-for-once pillows, the afghan in its place are fun to arrange, like tending to details at the end of a draft. I like dawdling among a plot that I’ve set through a lot of heavy hauling. It’s fun to mess with line breaks, turn around a sentence here, replace a word there. Staring into space in search of an image can make me fidget, but polishing the edges is kind of delightful.

The past weeks have been devoted to such dustcloths, and I’m both happy and scared. The room is almost ready for guests I’ve longed to see. But of course then the nerves start wracking. What if no one wants to sit down? What if, after all, there are clumps of dog hair I missed? What if this room where I’ve been cozy isn’t a space anyone else cares about?

So I go back to tidying. A little bit necessary, a little bit obsessive. And with my face near the floor, I might notice the state of the cabinets. Yikes. One surface sends me to others, and I may have to open doors. I find my character tipping, when she can use a good push. Or raising her eyebrows when she needs to slam her fist. I’m a fan of the subtle, but I can get too sub. So bits of plot gets swept around.

And I remember sometimes we have to bring in lilies of the valley whether or not the bureau is dusted. In the quiet room I can’t wait to bust out of and also hate to leave.

Apr. 13th, 2011


Have Another Cup of Strong Tea, Please

I usually count myself among the world’s slowest writers. I gaze long and closely at scenes, and when I move on, it’s at a meandering, a word I prefer to sluggish, pace. I was once a shy girl in the back row taking note of daredevils and drama queens, though they weren’t called that then, and I continue to be more about long-looking than plunging ahead.

But today I’ve got a stack of roughish drafts of poems and I’m planning on wide strides as I look for connecting images and themes. As I think about pacing, there will be chopping, best done with the speed of pulling off a Band-aid. Why draw out the pain as I cross out words, lines, and stanzas on the way to what really matters?

I’m thinking of how artists sometimes begin with gesture drawings: a model may pose for half a minute, sometimes two, while artists quickly wave hands holding charcoal or soft pencil to catch a sense of motion. They begin in rush, timer clicking, then may work out a likeness slowly. At some point they may go back to the original energy, trying not to entirely cover those tracks with information about surfaces and shadows. Now I’m thinking of my rough draft as the artist’s blank page, making or looking for the lines that convey if not speed at least motion.

Loosening my attachment to what’s there may give me a better grip on what could be. But working relatively fast is a little bit scary. There will be deep breaths taken. And extra caffeine consumed. I’m thankful for the reassurance of computer cut-and-paste: nothing that’s done today can’t be undone, if I choose, tomorrow, where work likely will be done at a more leisurely pace. With time to revere some small, still details.

Mar. 28th, 2011


Poetry Housekeeping

Even when I write prose, most of my writing starts with stray words and phrases that slowly shape into sentences. I visualize, with fuzzy edges, much of what I want to say, then later stalk verbs and objects to make the mess make sense. When I write poetry, it’s satisfying to see words line up. Then stanzas look like stanzas. I love the moment when words down the page look like a poem. But I know my work has just begun.

What looks like a poem needs to be turned over and given a good shaking. Phrases tumble. Some are swept past the margins and stay there. Others find places in other poems. I’m getting toward the end of a volume of verse, but you couldn’t tell it from the haphazard slew of words, lines, and cross-outs on the page. It’s like I cleaned out a closet and spent time discarding and organizing, but when everything’s still on the floor, the work hardly shows.

I don’t know if there’s ever a more efficient way. I have to make things as neat as I can, then throw it to the wind. Play with what’s scattered, and I suppose seeing how different words look when set against different ones, I make new connections. With new layouts, holes glare and demand to be filled.

If I were cleaning a closet I’d be tempted to cheat: tired of the piles, I might stick things back whichever way they’d fit. But I’m more careful here. I tolerate the stacks of words – this one, or this? --, clean up, then shove words willy-nilly all over again in the hopes of spotting more gaps to fill or more words that fit side by side or don’t match at all, but startle.

So how do I know when I’m done?

It’s a good question. I know some poets revise almost forever, and I understand that temptation. For me it’s a matter of letting the poems rest, then coming back with fresh eyes. If the poem can surprise me, that’s a good sign. If I can sense that these words were already shaken up, strewn, and raked, that’s a good sign, too. I want words to follow each other in clear ways, but leave enough sense of an imperfect hand doing the arranging, so there’s room for readers to do their own shaking, shuffling, and strewing. At last I feel happy about the look of lines in straight rows, finally, I hope, where they belong.

Mar. 2nd, 2011


Metaphor and Motion

Last night the sound of one pet or another woke me with the thought that the character in my work-in-progress sees the world in metaphor. At the moment this seemed revelatory, as such broken-sleep thoughts can sound. But this morning I’m unimpressed with my night mind. What metaphors, I want to know. Can you give me even one example?


So, onto work with morning mind, but I’ve come to think there was a bit of a message there. I’ve been working on a series of poems and in this early-ish draft there’s a lot of chronology to work out. Who’s doing what when, and how do I make this clear without too many words. I have some images I’m working through, but my focus is on the forward motion, nudging readers from one page to the next.

Today I’m taking my night thought as a message to open some metaphors, the way you can unfold a paper swan. This will bring a pause in the action, but it’s time to figure out where I can slow things down with a glimpse inside paper wings, a more lingering look at a long neck and dangly feet. There has to be a need to turn the page, or at least move down it, but also something that makes us want to enjoy a wee bit of contemplation, to leave the page feeling the way I did this morning: what might that stray night-thought mean? If anything at all?

If you’re not in the mood to make metaphors, but want to be creative, here’s a video about how to make an origami paper swan. Maybe I’ll recycle some failed drafts.

Feb. 28th, 2011


Revision and Magic

Sleet is falling over evergreens drooping with snow and ice. I’m revising a manuscript that looks pretty familiar, which isn’t surprising since I looked at it yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that and .. you get the picture. The dripping outside the window is getting way too loud.

Part of me wants to flee from my laptop. I have other chores, including a talk to write. But it’s a day when I feel like I need some magic, and few surprises will happen if I shape explanatory prose or push the vacuum cleaner. Magic isn’t going to come by finding places for the words on the manuscript I’m revising, though many clumps need to be pulled apart and straightened out.

I stacked up a few books by my freesias for an afternoon reward and a little shaking up of my mind. But I’m hoping to find new paths even before, by asking my characters to get up and try another room or city or different company. Characters aren’t going to surprise us when we’re asking them to pick up their feet or elbows while we tidy. I’ve got to set mine in motion and watch hard, knowing I might be rewarded only with some dull dialog and shuffling among furniture. I’ve got to let go of the fact that I’m revising and nudge everyone to play again, get a little wild, make a whole new mess. Cleanup will have to wait, while I kick around the rubble.

Feb. 16th, 2011


No Sandcastles

Sometimes writing can feel as carefree as building sand castles.

And sometimes I do not want to sit at my desk. Or window seat.

Today was that second kind of day. I muttered. I grumbled. I yelled at the dog (The cute one. Who is loud). I wished the phone would ring. Even if it was just a reminder about the dentist. Even if it was bad news, at least it would be a distraction. I made more tea. Ate half a lemon bar. I can’t believe that yesterday I called being in the middle of a book my favorite part of the writing process.

And finally got to work. Pushing around old sentences that didn’t sing. Pawing through words that seemed saggy. Feeling tired of my characters: why couldn’t a new and charming one show up?

Why isn’t the phone ringing when I want it to? Now even the dog isn’t barking.

But at last my characters started to seem a little bit interesting again. And pages completed got slightly longer. Tomorrow there’s always hope I’ll start on a better note. Remembering that sometimes there’s just a lot of terrible traffic on the way to the beach. And sometimes the sand looks kind of nasty. But something is better than nothing when it comes to castles or manuscripts, so it’s okay to whine to yourself, make peace with the dogs, maybe finish off the lemon bar, and see what you can find in the too bulky words and over-familiar characters.

Or sometimes you have to put down the virtual shovel and bucket and put on a very virtual jacket and black pants. Get out the virtual lint brush for dog hairs. And get to work. 

Feb. 15th, 2011


Clinging to the Castle: Writing as Work or Play?

When I scoop my laptop from the breakfast table, fix another cup of tea, and tell my husband I’m going to work on some poems, sometimes it feels like that. A chore. A job. Hard.

But these days I have a lot of words to work with, which makes writing seem a little more like play. I might say there’s a skeleton, but that sounds creepy, or a map with roughed-out roads, but that makes it sound more structured than it is. I’m thinking of it as a kid who’s piled up a lot of sand for a castle. Some sand will turn into turrets. Some will be pushed down or collapse on its own. Some will be shaped into windows.

Lots of lots of attention must still be paid to details, but right now it’s more like play than work, even if, well, already wearing sweatpants, baggy sweater, and red wristlets to keep out the cold, I don’t look as serious as I’d like (the chance to wear better clothes is why some of us like to teach.) But I’m moving in and out of windows, exploring, tearing down, trying out the look of another balcony or level.

This is perhaps my favorite part of the writing process. I don’t have to wear blinders against the glare of the blank page. The copy editor in me can keep quiet, instead of staying vigilant for typos, puffy phrases, and too-wandering sentences.

Or wondering if I’ve left too many or not enough windows open, if they’re shuttered to just the right angle. So readers can get in but not get lost.

Jan. 26th, 2011


January Time Traveling

This month there’s a lot of snow, and worse, ice, here in Massachusetts. I think gardening books may sell more now than at any other time of year, though I haven’t researched that. We mark our calendars for the bulb shows promised at local colleges coming not quite soon enough, where the air is fragrant with green leaves and blossoms that make breathing much more fun.

And sometimes we hit a winter in our writing. I have a solid draft of my work in progress, some of which is set in nineteenth century Rome, some in Boston. I began the novel-in-verse with research about those places as well as the central character’s life. I’ve been working on the narrative arc and honing lines for a while and feel not exactly stuck, but hemmed in, the way the icy driveway makes me think twice about heading anywhere. Tucking the manuscript away for a while is one smart way to know I’ll come back to it fresh, but I’m not quite at that point. So yesterday I made a trip to the library and went through the travel sections.

I generally keep to a regimen set when my daughter was going to school of writing during school hours, then doing research, which doesn’t take as much concentration for me, after 3 p.m. So today in late afternoon here are some of the books I’ll daydream over.

These are places where my character walked, though I’ll have to check dates. (yay for Italy which keeps a lot the same, and I’m sorry about Boston, a city I love, which with good reason has changed a lot in 150 years). Photographs from old books help me imagine things my character saw. I do have a question: did confessionals in St. Peter’s look as they do now? But mostly I’m hoping for the luck of finding an image that may pull together holes, or start a new thread, or just plain sparkle, and carry me happily back to work.

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