I started this blog because I set a goal to write daily, for one year. I quickly learned that writing daily and blogging daily are two different things. Some of my writing is just for me — like journaling — and some can be shared publicly. So I decided to post on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. That worked for a while. I began blogging about poetry. Although I had expected to write about the experience of taking a sabbatical and becoming a full-time mom, poetry is just what came out. I began writing some of my own poems. Then, in the middle of June, I enrolled in a poetry workshop. It was challenging, inspiring, and completely wonderful. I learned what makes a poem, how to read a poem, how to write a poem, how to know whether your poem burns, how to revise your poems, and how to push yourself into the deep recesses of a poem just when you think it’s finished. I learned that I will never improve without a community of writers to give me constructive feedback. And I learned that I’m just beginning my study of poetry. In the midst of all this learning, my blog faded into the background. I spent my writing time either working on my own poems or critiquing those of my fellow workshoppers.
So, here I am, on this Wednesday morning. My poetry workshop ended last week, and I’ve fallen out of the habit of posting every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, as promised. Not only that, I’ve fallen out of the habit of daily writing. In fact, I’ve missed forty days of writing. Time to make some adjustments. I need to lighten my blog load. From now on, I’m going to try posting one day a week, on Wednesdays. Do we have a deal? Let’s shake on it, and I’ll try to hold up my end of the bargain.
When you travel, the last song you heard before you left town plays over and over in your head. Until you return home to log serious time with your car stereo, you’re stuck with this song — or really just the same two or three lines of it — for days on end. Not even twelve hours of sleep breaks the streak. So you hear “you’re the hottest @#%$#%$ in this place” no matter where you go, or what you do. When you look up from your coffee and see a gorgeous transvestite in Roman Empire style sandals and hair down to his butt, it kind of makes sense. When you’re jogging the perimeter of the Jardin du Luxembourg, it pumps you up. When you’re pushing through a crowd at the Louvre in eighty-five degree heat, it takes on a literal meaning. But what happens when you’re trying to admire Monet’s Le Train dans la Neige, or light a candle in a chapel of Cathedral St. Sulpice? There’s nothing you can do. The more you resist, the harder it fights back. So you go with it. You let it become your anthem. But you never hear it playing outside your head. Never in a taxi or in a store. Not even an elevator music version, although that’s hard to imagine. You begin to plan how to purge it from your mind when you return home. To fully expunge it, you will play it once on your car stereo, as loud as you can stand it. Then you’ll pick another catchy tune, one you already know by heart, and play it two or three times, until you hear it in your head. You will sing every word. And when you can sing it a cappella, the exorcism will be complete. You will awake the next morning, turn the dial to the station in your head, and breathe a sigh of relief when the anthem is no longer playing. A year later, you’ll hear it at a party. You’ll think how it reminds you of your trip to Paris. You’ll go home, rummage through photos and ticket stubs. You’ll spend a few happy moments sifting through memories of Monet’s Le Train dans la Neige, the chapel at St. Sulpice, the Louvre, and the transvestite in Roman empire style sandals. You’ll begin planning your next trip. At the top of your packing list, you’ll write: iPod and earphones.
Just breakfast. Le petit dejeuner. That’s all I need in France. I always order the same thing: un cafe creme, une tartine beurree et de la confiture, et de l’eau sans gaz. A coffee with milk, a small, toasted baguette with butter and jam, and a non-carbonated bottle of water. Nothing fancy. But still so good I have to write it down. Perhaps it’s because I’m sitting alone in a cafe, while my mother watches the kids for one precious hour. I’m free to follow my mind as it wanders. For now it’s focused on the plate in front of me, on this table in La Tarte Tropezienne, my favorite bakery in St. Tropez. I watch the Tropeziennes buy their baguettes for the day ahead. A tall woman wearing a black motorcycle helmet, orange short shorts, and pink platform shoes orders a croissant, while her pug patiently waits at her feet. From my seat, I can see shining jewels in the bakery case: Perfect rows of tartes aux framboises, tartes aux fraises, and tartes aux pommes. Edible works of art, painted in brightest reds, glossy with sugar glaze. And of course there are eclairs and macarons, in an array of pastels. Even more tantalizing are the feuillettes: feuillette pommes, feuillette abricot, and feuillette poire chocolat. What could be more glorious than layers of light pastry, topped with pear and chocolate? And last but not least, the grande dame of Tropezienne pastries, La Tarte Tropezienne — a round pastry, dusted in sugar, cut in half, and filled with yellow custard, perhaps with a few strawberries. Delicieux. La dame is available in any size: grande, moyenne, petite and, my favorite, the bite-size bebe Trop. Pop one in your mouth, sink your teeth into the doughy pastry, and enjoy the sweet taste of vanilla and the crunch of sugar. Am I in heaven? No, just France. But if you ask the French, it’s close.
When someone asks about my favorite part of a trip, I find it hard to answer. My favorite parts are the details that loose color upon description. When I try describing them, I feel like a comedian telling a bad joke. Nevertheless, here I am, on a wonderful trip, and I’d like to share a snapshot with you. I’ll start with one I snapped this morning:
The rooftops of St. Tropez are a wrinkled cheek, dappled with sun spots. Orange clay tiles, baked and worn to peach. From the citadel, I follow a narrow street that winds downhill, to the port. Blue shutters like fading eye shadow on rose-dusted stucco lids. I come to rest on the steps of this tiny square, at the base of the bell tower. The original bell is shielded by gray netting. Pigeons call to one another from the tight rectangle of rooftops over my head. Purple bouganvillea climbs the white stucco walls at one corner. A helicopter passes overhead. A local with curly gray hair throws the end of a croissant to a gull. A tourist stops to take its picture, and the gull leaves the croissant untouched. A flower shop called Bloomy has just opened for the day, and pop music wafts through the air. A proprietor places red plastic snails in the windowsills of his gallery. Tourists creep into the veins of this fishing village uncovered by Brigit Bardot, who passed on, leaving this aging diva who still takes care to apply her maquillage. The old bell rests, but a new one tolls promptly on the hour. A madame shops for a collar for her petit chihuahua. Rooftops may fade; cobblestones may crack; bells may stop ringing; but charm does not age.
Yesterday I heard on NPR that the Los Angeles County school system will order thirty thousand iPads, and plans to phase out the use of textbooks. Can you imagine elementary school without textbooks? Think back to the first day of third grade: You are sitting at your flip-top desk. You lift the top and find your third-grade science book. You open the cover, find “This book belongs to:”, and inspect the names written on the five black lines beneath it: the star of the school play, the dodge ball king, the nose-picker. You are about to join a textbook lineage. You erase the last bit of the nose-picker’s name and any other smudged pencil marks. You want to wipe the slate clean. You flick the bits of eraser from the cover and print your name in clear, confident hand. You have staked your claim. You are now a third-grader and a science student.
Now, who would want to miss out on that experience? A member of the post-internet generation, I suppose — those proficient users of the internet-machine.
It’s funny how a brief story on the radio can invoke nostalgia. I can almost smell textbook dust in the air. What can I do, but look for a poem to take me back to my elementary school days? Luckily I remembered this wonderful piece:
A Spiral Notebook
By Ted Kooser
The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
5 SUBJECT NOTEBOOK. It seems
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.
I first thought of this poem because of the association between textbooks and spiral notebooks. It was a school-supply thing. Imagine my delight when I reread it and realized the speaker is reflecting on growing older. After hearing that story on NPR, I too reflected on growing older. I considered the countless ways our world has changed over the course of my lifetime. I’m sure every generation feels the changes have been more severe than those encountered by previous generations. Don’t we all feel that way? Until I get a little more comfortable with growing older, I resolve to avoid the school supply aisle of the drugstore. And, please — no spiral notebooks for my birthday.
One of my favorite parts of taking a poetry workshop is picking the brains of my experienced comrades. On Monday night, I asked two of them to give me their list of favorite poets. I took out my notebook and recorded the list: Maurice Manning, Alice Friman, Jim Harrison, Jack Gilbert, David Shumate, William Stafford, and Karen Kovacik. I could hardly wait to get home, tuck the kids and my husband into bed, and dig into some new-to-me poems, by new-to-me poets. I surfed http://www.poetryfoundation.org and read as many poems as I could, until I could no longer keep my eyelids open. I was hoping a poem would grab me, but nothing sounded the alarm bells.
The next day, I recalled having attended a reading by David Shumate some years ago. I scanned my bookshelves until I found a signed copy of High Water Mark. I started flipping through the pages and stopped when I came to this poem:
How to Sit in a Cafe
by David Shumate
Place both elbows on the table and cradle the cup between
your palms. Gaze into your coffee and watch your soul surface
from time to time. Lean back and regard the sky when it suits
you. Your hair should look forsaken. Your clothes do not
matter at all. If someone sits at a table nearby, speak only when
it pleases you. Appear dismayed, even irritated. You owe
nothing to this purgatory that values your skills so little. Avoid
the impression of waiting for someone; you are here because
you are here. Bring an inconspicuous tablet if you wish. A
pencil for a note or a sketch. Come only when the moon is
present. Never be the last to leave. Cairo, Moscow, Paris,
Rome — everywhere the rules are the same.
As soon as I read this poem, I got that happy buzz I get when a piece sings to me. How did David Shumate know that I had just spent most of the day packing for a trip to Paris? And how did he know what it feels like to sit in Cafe La Bonaparte, nibbling on a tartine and sipping a cafe creme? This poem reminds me of my happiest moments in Paris: I sit at a round table at La Bonaparte. I gaze at red geraniums in the flower boxes of the Cathedral St. Germain. I admire the polished shoes of a Parisian man on his way to work. I smile at a dusty dog curled at his owner’s feet, beneath a woven chair. I pretend not to notice a woman scribbling in a notebook, pausing every now and then to tap her pen against her lips. I breathe deeply and savor every moment.
How can a poem transport me so? The next time I yearn for cafe dreaming, I’ll reach for this little sip by David Shumate. It’s cheaper than a plane ticket — cheaper even than a cafe creme.
Writing a bad poem is fun. Writing a good one is damn hard work.
I suppose that seems obvious, doesn’t it? But after spending a week trying to write my first big girl poem, I have an even deeper appreciation for the Ted Koosers of the world. To write a poem that a reader understands and appreciates is a tiny miracle. To make a reader happy she spent a few minutes of her day reading your piece is an even bigger miracle. How on earth do great poets do it? Can they please bottle their magic and sell it?
In the first week of my workshop, I shared a poem I had written several months ago. Now in week two, I’m about to share a poem I’ve written under the influence of my talented teacher and fellow workshoppers. It feels like hosting a dinner party, and admitting to your guests that you’ve burned the fish, just before you serve it: Please accept this really bad piece of work, and let’s all hope it goes better next time. If this were a poetry cage match, I’d come out of the cage in shreds.
What, you think I’m going to post this new, improved, bad poem? Are you nuts? Instead let me share a silly little poem I wrote – one of the good ‘ol bad ones:
Silly Little Poem (previously titled “Dare”)
Go ahead, light me up
Send me to the moon
Stand me on my head
Shove me off the high dive
Spin me blind-folded
Tip my canoe
Go ahead, Poet,
I triple dog dare ya
See what I mean? Wasn’t that fun? Bad, but fun. I know they say anything worth doing, is worth doing well. But sometimes it’s just fun to do something not so well, just for kicks. After all, it’s just poetry.