Fair Warning

I have already broken my weekly posting pledge, and I’m pretty sure if I keep it, at least half of the weeks are going to be posts about how I don’t have anything to post.  Flu, too much teaching, blah, blah, blah.  I will keep making attempts, however sporadically.

Here’s a pretty picture.

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And another. Same road, same spot, facing the opposite direction.  Sun dogs at -22 degrees.

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The Art of Concision

OK, OK.  It’s been 12 days since I posted, and I pledged to post every week. Mea Culpa.  I’m working on what has become a bigger idea for an essay than contains itself in a week-long time frame, and it’s the end of a semester and grades are due.  Also the beginning of a new semester with all that attends that.  You get it.  But I did pledge.  So here is an essay from a few years ago.  I know that’s cheating.  But it’s something.  The essay I’m working on brings together a bunch of threads of thought about how men and women approach poetry differently, and it’s wrestling with me.  Right now, it’s winning.  Soon, I will prevail.  Or die trying.

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The Art of Concision

As a poet and a reader, I’ve always been drawn to the short poem.  From the haiku and haibun of the Chinese masters to Jane Hirshfield’s  “Pebbles” to James Moore’s recent work, I am struck again and again by the power that can be held in a few words, carefully chosen,

The British Romantic poet Robert Southey said, “It is with words as with sunbeams — the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” This is not to say that there isn’t a place for the long, rambling, and beautiful elegy or rant.  I find, however, that the short poem is more likely to make me gasp in surprise as it pierces its arrow-like revelation into my mind and heart.

Take a poem like Margaret Atwood’s “You Fit Into Me:”

You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye

It’s all there in those sixteen words: the hope, the expectation of a symbiotic union, the disappointment, the anger, and the pain.  No long explanation is needed, and if we had one, it would dilute the impact of the poem.  This is often (but not always) the case.  Too many details, too much personalization, get in the way of the clear-eyed observation.  The poem is about the speaker’s experience, and not about it.  Stripping it down to the raw emotion, sans details, allows the reader into the poem in a way that a highly specific narrative might not.

This kind of concision is something that I find is a struggle for many poets.  If the topic is highly personal and emotional (as most good poetry is, I would argue), it is difficult to step back from the specificity of the event.  A stumbling block for those poets writing autobiographically is their slavish devotion to “truth.”  Because they are re-telling something that actually happened, or describing a person who actually lived or lives, they feel that leaving things out will be misleading or dishonest in some way.  Therefore, they end up with poems that read more like stories than poems, or that are so specific to their divorce, or their grandmother, or their herb garden after a rain, that the reader cannot see his divorce, or her grandmother, or their own sparkling cilantro. It is when the poet can let go of the smaller, more earthbound truths that s/he can strip the poem down to its bare essentials and reach the larger, capital –T  Truth that underlies the experience. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.”

In the Atwood poem above, I can think about the ways some of my relationships progressed (or didn’t) and feel the universality of the feelings those eventual, and sometimes long-overdue break-ups engendered.  If Atwood had told me that the “You” in this poem was an alcoholic trapeze artist who never came home without the scent of the bearded lady on his collar, I wouldn’t feel it in the same way, as I have not, as yet, been involved with an alcoholic trapeze artist with a penchant for the unnaturally hirsute. I could enjoy the poem as a curiosity, as a view into another’s life, but I would not have the head-nodding recognition that the poem gives me now. It is not that the Atwood poem is not specific.  It’s what the poem is specific about:  the feelings, not the details, the people not the setting, the timelessness, not the time.

Of course there are poems that go against every single idea that I posited in this article that I love and return to and wish I had written.  But it is the short, concise observation that gets me every time.

(First published on The Writers’ Block at loft.org)

 

 

 

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Trying To Care About Publishing

Dorothy Parker said (supposedly) “I hate writing, but I love having written.”  I can totally relate to that, but what is even more true for me is that I hate sending poems and manuscripts out to be published (or more likely rejected), but I love having been published.  A conundrum.

For me, the joy of writing poetry is in the invention, the discovery, and the solving of whatever the particular puzzle of that poem is.  Once I’ve done that, I’m kind of done with it and ready to move on to the next puzzle.  This is a problem, because I also like to share my work and have readers connect with it, and (less so, but still) have publications and stuff to add to my resume.  If there were such a thing as an agent for fledgling, unknown poets, that would be great, and I would happily pay a percentage of all my exorbitant poetry earnings (cue hysterical laughter here) to someone who would take care of this end of things for me while I scribbled away and tossed each finished poem into hands other than mine to deal with, not to be handled again by me until I was called to make some kind of grand acceptance speech.  The rejections, in the meantime, would be handled by the agent, and I would never even see them.  I would not even know I had submitted to The New Yorker or Poetry Magazine until the congratulatory messages started showing up on Facebook.  An idyllic existence.  And like most purely idyllic existences, impossible.

This has been an issue for me for decades, and the fact that I have anything published at all is kind of miraculous.  I remember Bill Borden, a dear departed poetry friend, chastising me at a reading about not submitting.  I said to him “I think if I just keep quietly writing poems, and they are halfway decent, eventually The Paris Review will call and say ‘Hey–we heard you have some poems.  Can we see them?’.”  We laughed at how dumb that was, and then, right in the middle of our laughter, Liz Minette, who was editing North Coast Review at the time (the Duluth , MN one, not the other one) approached and asked if she could publish the poems I had just read to the (sparse, in that poetry reading kind of way) crowd.  I hope I didn’t injure Bill with the elbow-in-the-ribs I gave him at that point.  That experience, however, as Bill knew, is the exception, not the rule, and I guess if I want publications I am going to have to get off my duff and send things out.

HEAVY SIGH.

Just yesterday, in fact, I got a gently nudging message from one of my beloved poetry mentors and thesis advisors, the wonderful Laura Wetherington, asking if maybe I had dusted off my almost-two-year-old thesis and sent it out.

Um.  No.

Her message was accompanied by a very tempting, pie-in-the-sky-ambitious call for manuscripts and an offer to look over a revised version of my thesis.  Totally sweet and generous.  So sweet and generous that I can’t really say no or ignore it, can I ?

I’ve committed to writing something here weekly after a long hiatus, and I suppose it’s time to commit to sending out the poems I have moldering away in the back corner of my office.  I mean, they are already written and everything.  Which is why they bore me.  But I do like having been published, and there is only one way to get there.

Here goes.

Heavy sigh.

 

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Katie Ford’s Blood Lyrics: A Review

This is a book review I wrote for Ilyse Kusnetz’s class in writing book reviews at Sierra Nevada College, while working on my MFA.  As Ilyse told me, it was probably not timely enough to have published in a journal, as the book had been out for 2 years at the time I wrote the review, but I offer it here, as both a recommendation of one of my favorite books of poetry and a remembrance of Ilyse and her good teaching.  Ilyse lost a battle with cancer and left this world last year, just months after so brilliantly teaching this class.   Ilyse’s husband, Brian Turner, and others have immortalized her words and her voice in a very cool new project called The Interplanetary Acoustic Team.  I encourage you to click on the link and listen to the teaser track, “Light Sketch,” at the bottom of the page, featuring both Ilyse’s poetry and her voice.  Anyway, here’s the review:

Blood of Our Blood

            Katie Ford, whose background as a divinity school student has always led her to explore how we position ourselves in a universe where violence and suffering exist and God looks on, continues that theme in Blood Lyrics, her 2014 poetry collection (Graywolf Press). This collection addresses the questions of her earlier books: Deposition (Graywolf, 2007), which Ford describes in a 2007 interview with Red Mountain Review as exploring “clear correlations between the ways theologians and religious leaders [write] and [speak] and the ways humans perpetrate violence”;  and Colosseum (Graywolf, 2008), which, according to Sasha Dugdale’s 2009 Poetry magazine review, addresses “spiritual desolation” in the face of a “backdrop of constant mortality.”

In Blood Lyrics, Ford explores motherhood and its lines of conjunction to the decimations of war.  Certainly that alliance has existed through time—Mother’s Day was originally conceived as a banding together of mothers against war, and various groups have formed such as the turn-of-the-20th-century American War Mothers and the more recent Another Mother for Peace.  Ford, here, draws a parallel between her own fear and struggle in the days following her daughter’s extremely premature birth and the struggles of soldiers on the battlefield, observers of war, and all who are touched by combat and its corollary violences.  It is the best kind of parallel that is drawn in this collection: the kind we should be able to see but don’t, until a poet as deft as Ford shows it to us.  Of course mothers feel each other’s pain. Of course the enemy combatants are the sons and daughters of mothers. Of course it is blood that connects us.  Of course.

            Ford begins Blood Lyrics begging intercession, casting a desperate spell offering an unnamed power “my lights, …my most and only opal,/  all that is nimble, …/my eyes,/…their cotton” in exchange for compliance with one demand: “do not take my child.”  Throughout this first section, Ford takes us through the terrors of parents on the brink of losing a child, a daughter born too early, a “child of grams” who “weighs seven hundred dimes,/ paperclips, teaspoons of sugar”.  We are taken into the Children’s Hospital, where “a child’s body breaks the heart/and the mother can’t know/if she counts as a mother”. The fear is palpable, the terror  of living on an earth where this could happen, where “the earth laid down/its brutal head/ [and] would not lament” .

Ford laments, and not only for the child she may lose, but for the children of other mothers in far-away lands from whence we get news, though the relationship between motherhood and war is more implicit than explicit.  Occasionally however, Ford gives us signposts on our road to recognition: “Here is the board, here the water./  Baptism is as bad as they say”.  The enemy (whether foreign or not) is humanized, made banal: “Torturers button their canvas shirts/…straighten their cots…bite their toast” and one can hear the unspoken and have mothers, too, when Ford tells us,  “theirs is the zeal of children.”

Ford grapples with beauty in a world where, in Baghdad, “loosened souls” are “hastened into the kingdom/of unspecified light”; where, in Bobigny, “not one in seventy tongues/…are speaking now” and where prayer “chants your own secret incompletion into death”.  She asks that, in such a world, “the pear and fig fall prior to their time,/…the radios die/…each year decay and each decade”.  In this world, “gratitude is not allowed…not without offense”, and yet there is still beauty; there are still “vineyards and orange groves/ [that] rise after seasons of sudden freeze”. Even amidst that beauty, there is disillusionment. “To bomb them,/we mustn’t have heard their music,” yet this poem’s speaker “[tries] to believe in us” and receives “a letter/from a friend: don’t be naive.”  Again a question is asked: “How God can bear it…”; not how God can bear the calamities of death and injury, but how God can bear “the sound of our florid voices, thankful/for the provisions at our table”.  How to manage that?  How to live in a world where “[our] lives should feel like cut-outs of lives,/ paper dolls drifting to the ground, /ready for chalk outlines” but don’t?  How to live in a world where “the garden plot [is] wasted at the gate/…the finch…/so trivial”?

That Ford provides us with such minimal answers, such inadequate remedies (“make an instrument of your broken lung,”  “photograph the massacre”) is a clear-eyed antidote to the empty jingoism to which so much of 21st-century America subscribes.  She wants us to know that she knows we might dismiss her position in “that sentimental watershed called new motherhood”.  She knows that we might think “because [her] child was threatened” she may “too quickly conclude/that no one should be threatened,/that we shouldn’t kill those asleep in their bedclothes/somewhere we haven’t heard of”.

Few readers will leave this collection unaware of the blood that runs through us and through our children, the blood that is spilled in our names, the blood that bonds all mothers to each other and to children.  Few readers will assent to Ford’s invitation at the end of the book:

If you wish, call me what the postpartum have long been called:

tired mother, overprotective bear,

open sore,

a body made sensitive

to the scent of fire or fume,

just as your mother would have been

when you were born, you are alive

to read this now

 

We are alive, and we are more alive having read this collection. Only time will answer Ford’s ultimate question: “whether something outside of us can reach in and affect change”.

 

 

           

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Back at it, finally

 

I have let this blog languish for almost a year.  How did that happen?  It’s not just the blog that has languished.  I have not written a poem in over a year, either.  Friend, master writer, and professor Heid Erdrich told me “Nobody writes for two years after their MFA.”  I know that’s not true for everyone, but it made me feel slightly better.  2016 was a year crammed with writing milestones–two intense MFA residencies in Tahoe, finishing my thesis, spending a month writing (sort of) at the Vermont Studio Center, graduating, and receiving the Region 2 Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship, plus a couple of readings here and there.

2017?  Not so much.  My focus there turned from writing to teaching, and I added online teaching for Lake Tahoe Community College to my regular full-time high school gig.  Part of my assignment at LTCC is teaching in the Incarcerated Student Program, and the work that I am doing and have done with incarcerated students has been interesting and fulfilling, as is all of my teaching.  So, now, I teach full-time-and-a-quarter.  But what about the writing?

I resolve that in 2018 I will send out my thesis manuscript to possible publishers/contests, send out individual poems for publication, apply for jobs that will afford me more time and focus on writing, and, most importantly, carve out time to read, think, and write (the holy trinity).  Part of that is the commitment I have made to a group resolution of many poets to blog at least once a week for this entire year.  This is my first post to that end.

Now I’ve said it out loud, so I have to do it.  Stay tuned, and check out some of the other poets who I’m joining in this pledge.

Happy new year, all.  You’ll be hearing from me again next week!

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Here’s a list of poets who have committed to blogging at least once a week in 2018.

Kelli Russell Agodon- http://ofkells.blogspot.com/   
Donna Vorreyer – https://djvorreyer.wordpress.com  
Mary Biddinger – wordcage.blogspot.com/ 
Dave Bonta –  http://vianegativa.us
Heather Derr-Smith – ferhext.com/   
Jeannine Hall Gailey  – webbish6.com 
Erin Hollowell – . T
Trish Hopkinson  https://trishhopkinson.com/
Crystal Ignatowski – http://somehiatus.tumblr.com/
Anita Olivia Koester – https://www.forkandpage.com/
Courtney LeBlanc – wordperv.com   
Lorena P Matejowsky   https://nothingbutblueskies.wordpress.com/   
James Moore –   
LouAnn Shepard Muhm – https://louannmuhm.com/
January Gill O’Neill  – http://poetmom.blogspot.com .  
Bonnie Staiger –https://bonniestaiger.com/
Hannah Stephenson – http://thestorialist.com
Stephanie Lane Sutton athenasleepsin.wordpress.com
Christine Swint –  https://balancedonedge.blog/   
Dylan Tweney – http://dylan20.tumblr.com/

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Online Class Offered

Once again, I’m offering my class in Writing the Short Poem online through The Loft Literary Center. It’s a 10-week fully online class for poets at all levels who are interested in honing their craft and generating a lot of new poems. For the purposes of this class, we call 15 lines or fewer a “short poem.”

Class begins January 25–I’d love to see you in it!

(lots of people take this class more than once, so , former students–repeaters are welcome!)

Click here for more information and registration.

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So, This Happened

So grateful to be living in the state with the highest per-capita arts funding in the country!  Minnesota values the arts and artists.

https://r2arts.org/2016/11/03/louann-muhm-and-mary-therese-named-region-2-arts-councils-2016-2017-artist-fellows/

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Eventful October

I’m thrilled that my October is full of poetry events!  On October 15, I will be the keynote speaker at the League of Minnesota Poets fall gathering at Arrowwood Lodge in Baxter, MN, 1:30 pm.    (click for more info).  Title of the talk TBA.

I also was honored to be asked to judge the Brainerd Writers’ Alliance annual poetry contest.  I will be presenting the awards and saying a bit about the winning poems at the BWA Fall Festival at Northland Arboretum  on October 29.  Winners will be invited to read their poems.

Finally, after a two-year hiatus for graduate school, I am starting my online teaching for The Loft Literary Center again, and registration is now open for Writing the Short Poem, a 10-week intensive craft class for poets of any experience level who are serious about studying craft and improving their poetry writing. Click HERE for more info and/or to register. It’s a class I absolutely love teaching, and I’ve missed it!  For previous members of this class, an advanced short poem class continuing our work together will be available (tentatively) in the spring.  I’m working on the course proposal now, and I hope that The Loft will want to offer it.  Watch for an email from me asking about interest from former Writing the Short Poem participants–if I can show that there’s real demand, I’m sure it will be offered.

A little further out, I’ll be reading at the Quatrefoil Library in Minneapolis on December 9 with fellow Minnesota poets Wendy Brown Baez and Michael Kiesow Moore.  More details soon.

I’m about a quarter of the way through my semester-long poetry writing moratorium/recovery-period/fallow-time-in-anticipation-of-later-harvest, and I’m already getting an itch to start writing.  I’ll resist it, because I want it to grow into an irresistible compulsion, and I’m not quite there yet. Meanwhile, I’m really happy to have these events on the schedule to tide me over.

 

 

 

 

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Letter from Camp

I’m coming to the end of my month at the Vermont Studio Center.  It’s been a month of revelation, frustration, breakthrough, and stagnancy.  I’ve gotten both more and less done than I had imagined I would, and I’m figuring out how to be OK with that.  I’ve finished less writing, but I’ve done lots more thinking and research that will lead to writing when I’m ready for it.  I’ve made starts on poems that need to cook for awhile.  I’ve written a few things that I like. I’ve met an incredible group of writers and visual artists who inspire me, challenge me, and just generally make me feel like the world is a lot better than it sometimes seems.  I’ve revisited a part of my family and my family history that I haven’t seen for a long time.  All of that is good.

The revelations have been many, and I can’t explain them all.  Some are things I feel without words.  A few that I can articulate are:

  • A month is a really long time to sustain focused creative work.
  • Putting pressure on yourself to write things that aren’t ready to be written is counterproductive.
  • The above are really good rationalizations, but they are rationalizations. Getting the work done means getting the work done.
  • I’m possibly past the point of communal, dorm-style living, but there are parts of it I love. I don’t need to experience those things again for a really long time.
  • Writing is hard.
  • The breakthrough is always just on the other side of the frustration (collaborative credit to Tiffany Besonen on that thought).
  • I’m glad I was with these good thinkers and good hearts during the brutal news cycle July has been.
  • I miss my regular good thinkers and good hearts.
  •  I write better in shorter spurts, and when totally alone and silent (a challenge here).
  •  I’ve been intensely focused on reading, writing, and poetry throughout the last 2 1/2 years in a way I never have before, due to my MFA program and this residency, and it might be OK to give myself a break after I graduate in a couple of weeks.
  • I can’t let the end of this residency and the end of my MFA program let me get lazy about writing (after the aforementioned break).
  • The past two years have been really, really hard on a personal level, and I’m not sure I’ve fully acknowledged that.  Lots of losses. Lots of pain.
  • The past two years have been full of joy, too.
  • I really like driving my car, and miss it a lot.

OK, so that is a lot of revelations.  But it’s still only a fraction.

Friday, I leave here, and Sunday I head to Tahoe, for the last residency of my MFA.  I defend my thesis (oh yeah–I submitted my thesis, BTW), do a reading, and graduate, in addition to the usual residency stuff.  Then I don’t go to school there there anymore.  Which is hard to take. There will be tears.  Lots of tears, I think.  Happy ones, and emotional ones, and sad ones.  Waterproof mascara has been purchased.

So I graduate, I go home, I do tons of laundry, and then what?

 

 

EVERYTHING.

 

 

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Good News

A few months ago, I wrote in this space:

“I am extremely grateful and surprised to have been offered a scholarship and a month-long residency at Vermont Studio Center, the largest international artists’ colony in the United States.  That I have been offered this gift and that I am actually in a place in my life to be able to accept it seems miraculous to me.  A couple more miracles will be required to actually make it happen, but then, what doesn’t require a miracle or two?”

Well, guess what? Miracles do happen!  I am very happy to report that I am the recipient of a Region 2 Arts Council Individual Artist Grant, and that this grant will make my residency at Vermont Studio Center possible. I’m a little slack-jawed with the wonder of it.

I have the voters of Minnesota to thank for passing the Clean Water & Legacy Amendment in 2008, which provides a tiny fraction of our sales tax to continuing our Minnesota tradition of beautiful, clean waterways and our legacies of art and culture as well.  So many fantastic artists and their work have benefited from this fund, me included, and I couldn’t be more proud and happy to live in a state that not only values the arts and artists, but puts its money where its mouth is in supporting them and us.

So now I come back to the questions I posed in that November post:

“With all excuses removed, how will I do?  Will I rise to the occasion, or will I find out that all the things that I thought were obstacles were not the obstacles? Now that I’ve gotten what I thought I wanted (or a piece of it anyway), will it be what I’ve imagined it to be?”

I tell myself again (and again and again):  Leap, and the net will appear.

Thanks, Minnesota.

 

 

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