Tuesday, February 27, 2007

I used to giggle at his name in high school...

Today is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's birthday. While I can't totally get into his work, it's awfully romantic, I can recognize that he really impacted modern poetry. In his honor, here is a great Dana Gioia essay on Longfellow. He sets the record straight.

Monday, February 26, 2007


I started an online education class today, and I'm not sure why. I know, partially, it's because I love school and I love learning. I also know that it's because I want to try to start a doctorate program, and I'm not exactly getting any younger. It's because I love education and I want to learn as much as I can about teaching students.

But it's also because I'm crazy. It's because I don't like having any free time. It's because I like to think of life as an all you can eat buffet of responsibility, and I like to see exactly how much I can pile on my plate. Also, I think I'm doing this and freaking out because I see my husband working on school work and I think, "why not me too?"

I guess there are a million reasons why I'm trying this, but because it's new and because I'm scared, I'm panicking just a little bit. I'm worried that I won't be able to hack it in school and work and writing and I know something's going to give. I'm afraid that I'll forget about writing, and focus too much on my job and school. It's easy for me to forget about the things that bring me joy, sometimes.

Not to come to any sort of false resolution here, but I also know that this is going to be a good thing. This is going to allow me to learn more and grow and stretch. I'll just have to, once again, reorder my life and realize what my priorities truly are. And that can be truly scary and wonderful, at the same time.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Weekly Word Count, February 19-February 25

Only one poem this week, so 500 words. I'm a little mopey about the word count, but it was a stressful week at work. I tried, but nothing much happened in the writing department.

Next week, hopefully, will be more productive. 8469 for this year.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


I'm teaching literature this term, and I sure hope that my students don't read (or skim) this article. Otherwise, I'm screwed.

Apparently, a Paris literature professor has written a book entitled How to Talk About a Book You Haven't Read? Pierre Bayard, the author, humorously dismisses the stigma surrounding not reading a book and then offers tips for how to navigate the subject. He suggests such techniques as using knowledge about the public opinion of the book, gossip about the author, knowledge about the genre, and using anecdotes from your own life to talk about the book without talking about it. You can also change the subject, of course.

As a literature teacher, these are all techniques I have used. Without fail, when I start literature class each term, a student (or five) will try to suck up by mentioning all the books they like. Sometimes I've read them, sometimes I haven't. If I'm honest and say that I haven't read said seminal book by random obscure author, they express shock and disappointment that a lit instructor hasn't read this greatest book of all time. Or I can let them talk about it, and then I pick up on the verbal cues and discuss. I know I'm going to hell, but it makes life a lot easier.

Maybe I should have written this book. But then, I'd be "out" and that would open up a new can of worms.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Our Bodies Know...

I personally loved this week's topic from Poetry Thursday. The prompt was "the body knows." I believe our bodies know things before we know them mentally. I think our bodies are open to physically recognizing things that we aren't ready to recognize them emotionally or mentally. I also think I personally spend most of my waking life ignoring what my body knows or trying to distance myself from what the body knows. Even so, in a lot of my poems, I try to root them in some sort of combination of physical knowing and mental/emotional knowing.

This image in this rough draft was what immediately occurred to me after reading the prompt. There are two other "Domesticity Poems," which I've been working on for (on and off, mostly off) a year. As always, Happy Poetry Thursday!

Domesticity Poem #2

Every night, we lie together,
the four of us, bodies touching,
along the edges of the bed.
The cats remain at the corners,

squaring off, between our legs.
Their green eyes flash as they calculate
the positions of our bodies, the territory
they each claim as their own.

You and I are not as nocturnal,
not as concerned with distance
and space. We sleep, arm slung
over chest, knee pressing ribs,

skin rubbing against skin. We toss
and turn the whole night, a slow
silent waltz. We meet in the middle
then separate, tumbling together

in our crowded double bed.
Even in sleep, our bodies
know our boundaries, and we push
against them all night long.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Shopping Frenzy in Mad City

My husband and I went to Madison, WI this past weekend to spend his birthday with a close friend (I'll call him Ox) from college. We had an awesome time seeing Ox's new house that he just bought with his girlfriend, playing board games, and catching up.

Perhaps the highlight of our trip, at least for confirmed bibliophiles like my husband and me, was our trip to Madison Central Library's book sale. As soon as we walked in to the special reading room crammed with cheap books ($1 for hard cover, $0.50 for soft cover), we begin making obsessive piles. We were hoarding books like pros, carefully hiding them from the random homeless and otherwise smelly people also there.

About twenty minutes into our browsing, the clerk announced that we had to buy our books now, in order to make way for the bag sale. Not really understanding what the clerk meant by bag sale, we purchased a full grocery bag of books for $10. Not bad. But then, the clerk mentioned that if there was more we'd like to buy, we should come back in five minutes, because we could then fill up a grocery bag with anything for $3. Grrr. Like the suckers we are, we filled up another bag of books. All in all, we cleaned up. 26 books for $13.

After we were done with our two bags, I had to literally pull myself away from the book tables, as did my husband. I think we freaked out Ox and his girlfriend a bit. And she's a librarian.

I'm so excited for my new collection that I put it on a separate book shelf in our home. Here are the highlights of my finds...

-- Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior (I somehow missed this in college, besides living in the Womyn's Center and taking Women's Lit classes in college.)

-- Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (Highly recommended to me by every professor in grad school)

-- An out of print book of Kenneth Rexroth's poetry (A friend of the Beats is a friend of mine)

-- Derek Walcott's book of essays What the Twilight Says

-- Camille Paglia's Sex, Art and American Culture (Includes her famous essay on Madonna)

-- Natalie Goldberg's Thunder and Lightning

There's more, including some very cool anthologies and travel books. I don't know when I'll find the time to read them, but like a true obsessive, just having them makes me happy.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Weekly Word Count, February 12-18

Despite the hellacious amount of grading I had this week, I was still able to crank out 700 words. Not too bad. I neglected blogging a little bit (a lot), but something's gotta give.

7969 for the year.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

But I Like My Line Breaks!

I was terrified of this assignment from Poetry Thursday, even though I've written prose poems before. I think I was terrified for two reasons. First, I'm trying to distance myself from fiction in the past several weeks, and this felt a little a fiction-y for the first couple of drafts.

More significantly, I like the prompts that give me topics. This week I didn't know what to write about in prose poem form. Luckily, there is a billboard a block from my house for Cinderella 3. (Not a joke.) The tag line for the movie is "What if the shoe doesn't fit?" That's been lurking in my subconscious for a couple of weeks, and it finally got to come out.

Bedtime Story

Once upon a time, there was a girl. By day, she scrubbed stubborn gray ash from her stone bed. By night, she spun silence into silk, and cloaked herself in it. She frequented all the right places, places where nobody knew her name.

Once upon a time, there was a boy, trapped in hell. If hell was a party where people snacked on fish eggs and whispered idle lies. He saw the girl from across the room, and we know the rest. He followed her home. After dark. Watched her change back into her gray rags and wax the kitchen floor. He was hooked.

Once upon a time, he made her a promise. He gave her a pair of glass shoes, delicate and transparent as dreams. He said, “Slip these on, baby, and walk all the way home with me.” While he wasn’t watching, she put them on.

Here’s what we don’t know. They were so tight, they sliced the skin clean off her heels. It hurt like hell, and she was afraid of the blood, but she wore them anyway and hobbled home. She wore them every day. Every day watched her skin whittle away, like the unfolding of an onion. She waited for them to fit perfectly.

She waited a long time.

#5 -- Seeking Solace at a Stoplight

I've been having this obsession about the way the sky looks, lately. I can always tell how cold it is by the way the sky looks in the morning or coming home from work. The beauty of winter is that almost every day the sky looks different. So, almost every day, a new image occurs to me.

Seeking Solace at a Stoplight

Silhouette of bare
tree limbs, grasping the silver
sky. Hold me, they say.

Monday, February 12, 2007

#4 -- Above the Buildings, I See

I'm noticing that with these haiku, I'm becoming more observant. There is always this thought in the back of my head that I'm gathering images for the haiku. Then, when I see those things that make me think, "That would be good for a poem," I don't have to store them up and wait. I can simply address the image in 17 syllables.

I also like that I'm becoming more aware of nature. Since haiku technically have to have a reference to the season within the lines, I have to connect myself to what's going on outside of the hum of traffic jams and people. This, so far, has been an interesting practice. At least that's what I think at number 4. Talk to me at number 46.

Above the Buildings, I See

Waxing crescent moon
in cobalt dawn skies and I
pray for early light.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Weekly Word Count, Feb 5-Feb 11

I seem to hitting a pattern or stride. I write about the same amount every week, totaling 600 words. All poetry. I like that I have a routine. It feels good to have consistent writing a part of my life again.

I haven't really spent much time on fiction. I think this in large part to the death of my writing group a couple of months ago. They were all fiction writers, so I wrote fiction with them. They felt more comfortable critiquing it and I liked the experimentation.

Now, that I have been posting to Poetry Thursday, I've got other poets to get feedback from. I love it, I love it, I love it. (Did I mention that I love it?) Fiction has been taking a back seat, again, and I'm okay with that.

So, 600 for the week. 7269 for the year. Maybe I'll try to integrate an extra poem or haiku in the mix, to up my word count for next week. However, I'm expecting a lower than average word count, because the end of the term is this week. Hooray for grading.

Public Domain on the Web

I just discovered this great site. It's an organization called LibriVox. It's goal is to find all the public domain works and create download-able audio versions for public use. The catalog is divided by writing genre: Fiction, Non Fiction, Poetry & Dramatic Works.

Of course, I viewed the poetry section. It's a little thin, only 30 entries, but it's developing. (You can view what works are in progress.) On the first page of in-progress entries, it lists The Odyssey and the Divine Comedy. In the completed section, it does list some of my favorite old-school poets, like Blake, Coleridge, and Dickinson.

I love when technology is used for such interesting work!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Lyric Eye vs. Lyric I

After the debate on autobiographical truth in poetry in the comment section of my last post, I decided to do a little research. In graduate school, we debated the difference between the use of the "lyric I" and the "lyric eye." Both use the first person narrative in poetry, but they use it in two completely different ways.

For me, the lyric I entails the use of the I in an autobiographical, almost confessional sense. I think of the way I teach the poem
"Daddy" by Sylvia Plath, when I think of the lyric I. In our literature book, there is a quote by Plath stating that the poem is about a girl who had an Electra complex and learned that her father was a Nazi, which complicated matters. Beneath that, the editors provide a brief biographical background on Plath's family. Otto Plath, her father, was never a Nazi, though he was German.

When I teach this poem, I always tell my students to discount what Plath says about the poem herself. From what we know about Plath's life and artistic intentions, this poem is rooted in a lot of truth. She did have Daddy issues. This is one of the last poems that she wrote in her life and she was grappling with her adoration of Fascist men. ("Everyone woman adores a Fascist/ The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a Brute like you.") So, I'm a hypocrite when I teach. I say my poetry isn't necessarily true, but this one definitely is. But I believe that I base my criticism in good research.

Then, there's the lyric eye. For me, this encapsulates the use of I in a pseudo-biographical sense or a completely fictional sense. For instance, the work of
Ai or Patricia Smith. Both of these women use the persona and multiple persona in their books to illuminate an experience for the reader that they have never had. They capture the scariness in the daily world, the horror and the terror. (Dogfaceboy, for her Poetry Thursday offering, entitled "Enough" does this really well, too.) While it is pretty clear that the I in these poems is not the author, they are using the I to create true experience, in an emotional sense.

Then, of course, there is the blurry lines between all of this. As readers and writers, we have to decide where we fall on this sticky subject. Many, and most, believe that
playing with journalistic truth is the right and the duty of poets. Not everyone believes that, however. Ted Kooser, our poet laureate, writes about this issue:

"Perhaps I am hopelessly old-fashioned. Perhaps I should accept
the possibility that what the poet says happened really didn't
happen at all, but I'm going to have to make a painful adjustment
in the way I read poetry and honor poets. I grew up believing
a lyric poet was a person who wrote down his or her observations,
taken from life. I have always trusted the "I" of Walt Whitman as
he dresses the wounds of fallen soldiers; I trust Mary Oliver to tell
me what birds she saw as she walked through a marsh; I trust
Stanley Kunitz when he describes two snakes entwined in a tree."
-- Taken from this article.

While I often use the lyric I and the lyric eye interchangeably in my work, but I have to acknowledge the truth in Kooser's statements. I do believe, deep down, in the I as author perspective in poetry, due to its rich history in our literature.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?

This week's prompt at Poetry Thursday is about "change." They're doing this because they have changed their website, moved it off of Blogger and totally revamped the look and content. (It's fabulous.) As soon as I read the prompt, I immediately thought of this poem, which is about change. But it was also in need of a change, so I spent the week revising it. It is now about twice the length of the original and much more clear and descriptive (I think) of the situation.

A note about the content...when I was in college, my brother liked to hang out with gutter punks and he brought home someone named God and got drunk with him on Popov vodka. This poem is inspired by that, not by a misspent youth on the streets. I'm pretty wimpy in real life.

Spare Some Change

On the day my friend God baptized me,
dipped his dirty brown fingers in Popov vodka,
sprinkled my sunburned forehead,
I'd already lived
2 months on the street.

Already traded my pink retainer
for 5 dented cans of beans. Already defended
our drafty warehouse squat
from rats the size of my 2 fists. Dove head first
into the McDonald's dumpster, rescued
3 garbage bags of stale hamburger buns.
Drank rainwater from crumpled coffee cups
thrown in the gutter. Memorized
my own way of asking for change:
Spare some nickels for a girl
who can't go home?

Already thought of home
on those dank drizzling nights when you shake
even in an alcoholic slumber. Healed
from my first street beating, black eyes
cracked rib, for picking
someone else's off ramp. Already remembered
Dad's hands on the covers, on the blue nightgown

the thick stench of whisky and coke
on his hot breath. Already forgot
that girl I once was,
braces, B-average, and brand new
shoes every other month. Girl who pretended to care
who's daddy got her the car, who's mommy
left Vicodin unattended in the medicine cabinet.
Already tried calling Mom twice,
hung up before I lost the change.

The day I was baptized, renamed
on a yellow lit street at midnight,
behind a dumpster, in front
of all of my friends,
I'd already chosen this empty stomach life
because some things are better
than living at home.

Cases of Diminishing Readers, Large and Small

I woke up early this morning, after an inability to sleep. I knew I could read a book or magazine, but I chose to turn on my computer and see what's going on in the world. I subscribe,via email, to both the LA Times and the New York Times, because I value real newspapers. (Our StarTrib doesn't cut it at all.) I came across two articles, one in each paper, which made me feel both fortunate and afraid.

First, fortunate. In Iraq, infrastructure is a huge problem. When you have daily battles (or sectarian/civil violence, if you prefer), you have insurmountable difficulties getting the basic services to people. Libraries are included in daily services. While this might seem like a luxury to some, it is a necessary service to many. It helps build education and creates, rather than destroys, connections between people. It also preserves a culture that seems, at the moment, doomed.

Saad Eskander, the director of the Iraqi libraries and archives, has been having huge struggles keeping his country's library going. His computer system is spotty, due to bullet damage. He loses librarians to death threats and violence. After much debate, he has decided to publish a blog about his struggles. After reading a little of his blog, I feel fortunate to be able to take the bus down to the downtown library and simply borrow a book.

Now, onto afraid. In super-liberal, super-literate San Fransisco, independent bookstores are beginning to close down. This is a city that helped spark the Beat movement, through its bookstores. The article cites Amazon.com as the biggest detractor to sales, as well as the big box or mall bookstores. This has been happening for years in the Twin Cities most notably with the loss of Ruminator Books in St. Paul. We are slowly dwindling to a metro area that only uses big box bookstores to buy their books.

I am a little conflicted by this issue, due in part to the fact that my husband worked for an independently styled big box location for years. His store wasn't evil. There was no cafe, an awesome poetry collection, and staff members who were dedicated to reading. And his store was leaking money like sieve, which lead to its eventual closing. It was the last of its kind in our city. Now, every other big box bookstore is suburban and caters to the cafe/DVD/CD market. Ironically enough, the 3 independent bookstores in the same neighborhood outlasted my husband's corporate store.

Honestly, I do blame the indie bookstores, just a little. They do have supply chain issues (IE getting books on time or at all). They also have not adapted to the online marketplace, as well as they could. Besides, the big box stores are being spanked by Amazon as much as everyone else.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say, in this long-winded, somewhat connected post, is that we should protect the biodiversity of our reading options, here and abroad. My overall fear is that we only have one or two options to buy our books. These people get to decide what we read, by catering to sales or availability, which in turn, limits our reading. This limits our access to all knowledge, which is a terrifying thought.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

#3 -- Our First Storm of the Season

This morning, when I woke up, we had finally been hit with snow. We're down 30 inches this season, which is difficult on us sadomasochistic Minnesotans. Even though I knew it would be a traffic nightmare to get to work, there was something that was so peaceful and unexpected about waking up to a street, glowing blue-white with snow.

I wrote this while I was stuck in traffic on the way to work, on a small notepad that a friend of mine bought for me in Japan. Very dangerous, but in this case, necessary before the haiku flitted away.

Our First Storm of the Season

When we woke today,
streets were swathed in snow, erased.
Everything has changed.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Won't Somebody, Please, Think of the Books?

A couple of posts ago, I lamented library's use of technology to eradicate books. Luckily, the Library of Congress is trying to find ways to prevent the loss of knowledge through the deterioration of books and reading.

Starting in a few months, and with help from a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the LoC will begin digitizing books that are brittle and fragile, so that they will be available for future generations to read and enjoy.
I, for one, have never been a consumer of digital reading, preferring the sensory experience of curling up with a paper book. However, faced with the choice between losing precious memoirs and diaries from the Civil War or reading them on a screen, I'll choose blurry eyes and rescued narratives any day of the week.

By the way, I've spent a little time on the Library of Congress website and they are also doing some fascinating work on preserving digital content for the future. Along with this intriguing project, there is just a treasure trove of research content for those of us interested in obscure content.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Weekly Word Count, January 29-February 4

I've been pretty happy with my poetry progress lately, thanks in large part to Poetry Thursday. I've forgotten that once you start writing poems again, even if you force yourself to do it, you eventually get the creative urge to write. All by yourself.

1100 words this week -- all poetry. 6669 for the year.

Robert Frost Redux

I'm not obsessed with Robert Frost by any means, but this is 2 posts in a week. But, the New York Times had this great article about the battle between mainstream and avant-garde poets, which highlighted Frost's work.

It's very funny, because it balances between the seriousness of the debate (is language just meaning or a meaning unto itself) and the absurdity of the debate [it is described as, "a genuine aesthetic disagreement that is serious and important and (as one might say in Poetryland) worthy of a Panel Discussion, Followed by a Short Reception."]

According to the author, Robert Frost's work straddles the divide of using language in an everyday manner and using language to critique language. Of course, it's a precursor to advertise, er, review The Notebooks of Robert Frost, which have just come out. But the build-up to the review is priceless. It uses Frost's own quotes (without prior attribution) to make the argument for experimental poetry.

Can you tell the difference between the ideology behind...

“as soon as I start listening to the words they reveal their own vectors and affinities, pull the poem into their own field of force, often in unforeseen directions.” (avant-garde poet)


“the whole thing [poetry] is performance and prowess and feats of association.” (Frost)

I don't know if I can.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Teacher Moment

I had one of those cheesy, after school special teacher moments with one of my students two days ago. I'm being a little overly glib here, it actually meant a lot to me, because I was having a really rough day.

One of my students came up to me in the hall to tell me that he had just been awarded an internship at a prestigious resort. I congratulated him and shook his hand. He then said to me, "I never told you this before, but your class really helped me. By letting me write about what I wanted to write about and supporting me, it really opened up my life." I had to mock getting teary-eyed, because I was really getting a little weepy.

I've been thinking about that all week. I'm at a point with my class that I teach it by memory. We have 8 six week terms a year, 2 sections of English a term, times 2 years. I've probably taught my course about 80-90 times. If I have 20 students in each section, I've taught about 110 students at this school alone.

I forget that I develop significant relationships with these people. I say hi to them in the hallways, check up on them after their done with me, but I'm their first contact (since English is their first course) to higher education and to the way that learning changes you.

I also forget that the things I say in the first week:

writing is a path to personal expression and self awareness
writing can open up new worlds for you
the way you view and use language shows your world view

are actually true. And they actually matter to people other than me. I'm really lucky that I have this job.

Friday, February 2, 2007

#2 -- On the Interstate Commute

Winter finally arrived in Minnesota. This weekend, it's supposed to be 15 below, before the windchill. As our garage door opened this morning, I could see heat waves dancing on my windshield, over the boundary between inside and outside.

I don't know why I choose to live here, when it gets this dangerously cold.

On the Interstate Commute

This biting winter
morning, white exhaust plumes trail
cars clogging black roads.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Mrs. Olson Was Right -- I Did Use It Again!

This week's prompt at Poetry Thursday put the fear of eleventh grade back into me. We were to write a mathematical style proof of something. Having no math background at all, I thought for sure I'd be stumped.
Luckily, I turned to the suggested website, Math Words, and I found that math is interested in some really poetically significant things, like infinitiy and equality and identity. Who knew?

Marriage as Mathematical Equation

On any variable day, we two
(whole numbers, divisible
by the space between us

in bed, the span
of hours in our days)
comprise within us

and without us an infinite
number of possibilities (hero
villain friend lover stranger

worker partner angel fiend)
crammed into a finite
space (our imperfect skins

stretched across 412 bones, countless
cells, sinew, muscle fibers). Add
or subtract anything to this equation

(tone of voice at the end
of the night, the desire,
but not the act, to hurl dirty dishes

against the wall) and the equation
remains unchanged. Multiply this
unknown, undetermined quantity

of days left, by the unspeakable
kindnesses we two can create
(squeeze of the right shoulder, kiss

that still sends shocks shooting
through fingers and toes), the equation
evolves. This shift

may be immeasurable (two
millimeters closer in bed when
we sleep, one more half second

tangled in each other’s limbs)
or mathematically insignificant (one moment
less silence), but nonetheless present and counted.