Tag Archives: poetry

Listen, Woman

I’ve never felt the desire to memorize a poem.  I haven’t memorized a piece since I was a freshman in high school, when I had to deliver a speech from Julius Caesar in English class.

Nor have I ever felt the urge to copy a poem, word for word, to see what makes it work.  I know writers often do this to get under a poem’s skin, to discover what makes it successful, and to study another poet’s style.  I’ve just preferred to spend my time struggling to write something of my own.  That’s difficult enough.

Then I heard Lucille Clifton read her poem, “What the Mirror Said”.  Here it is:

What the Mirror Said

by Lucille Clifton

listen,
you a wonder.
you a city
of a woman.
you got a geography
of your own.
listen,
somebody need a map
to understand you.
somebody need directions
to move around you.
listen,
woman,
you not a noplace
anonymous
girl;
mister with his hand on you
he got his hands on
some
damn
body!

When I heard it, I was in the car, listening to a recorded reading by Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks.  When Clifton introduced the poem, she said she wrote it to get herself through a day when she didn’t feel like leaving the house.  It just so happened I was having one of those days.  I was feeling a little down, a little lost.  When Clifton began reading the poem, I sat up straight.  And then I smiled and played it again.  I played that poem ten more times, until I was sitting in my driveway and had to turn off the car.  Later that night, I copied it down, word for word.  Just for the sheer pleasure of seeing it on the screen.  Even now, I have the urge to stand up in this dark kitchen and deliver it to the morning larks.  I adore this poem, and I don’t even wish I’d written it myself.  I’ve certainly felt that way about other poems.  But not this one.  This one is like a gift you would never give yourself.  It makes you feel special, even treasured.  This one is a present I’ll unwrap over and over again.  Today I’m tying it in a big red bow, and I’m offering it to you.  I hope it makes you sit up a little straighter and smile.

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Revised Revision

My writing process used to consist of the following:  (1) cough up some words on paper; (2) format them into something that looks like a poem; (3) feel pretty excited about the poem; and (4) show it to no one.  Thanks to my poetry workshop, my process now includes a few more steps: (1) free write without worrying about form, line breaks, diction, or anything else that actually makes a piece a poem; (2) find the most compelling pieces of your free writing, put them at the top of the page, and start writing from there; (3) once you’ve got it all down, focus on form, line breaks, diction, musicality — the poetic elements; (4) when you can’t do any more revising on your own, share it with someone who can give you specific feedback; (5) digest the feedback and revise; (6) revise; (7) repeat steps five and six in perpetuity.  Doesn’t that sound like fun?  Actually, it is fun.  You just need time, tenacity and thick skin.

So here’s my butterfly poem, after its eighth revision.  Go ahead, take a whack at it.  I’m still on step seven.

In the Live Butterfly Exhibit

Hirst arranged hundreds of butterfly Wings
in the form of a stained-glass cathedral window.
Suspended a tiger shark in formaldehyde.

He released delicate Klimts and Monets, floating canvases.
They pulsed through warm air, like sea horses.

If only they had sprouted legs,
descended to the streets
of London, pushed through the crowd,
to the river bank.  Or spun second
cocoons and emerged, painted
and patterned, with wings of peacock feathers.

The only butterfly in the room
with a mint-green stripe painted
over black wings lies
dead on the radiator.

It’s Summer, So Why Am I Thinking About School Supplies?

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.

Have Poem, Will Travel

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.

It’s Just Poetry

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.

Distracted Driving

Having (re)made my peace with poetry, I scribbled this in my notebook:

More Please

I’d like to fill a bathtub with words
and soak in them

I’d like to pour words on a bed
and roll around in them

I’d like to string words, popcorn, and dried cranberries
and decorate the mantel with them

I’d like to pile words on a sugar cone
and lick them as they melt down the sides

I’d like to stuff words in a piñata
and beat it until they come bursting out

I’d like to fill a pot with words
and heat it to a boil

If only I had a better vocabulary

Well, it’s a (re)start.  It came to me as I waited for a traffic light to turn green.  If I had hit a stop sign, who knows what would have happened.  I’ll tell you one thing:  it’s just plain fun to write and drive.  It sure beats spilling your coffee on your pants.

How My Rusty Bike Returned Me to Poetry

Until yesterday, my poetry books were gathering dust on my desk.  To tell you the truth, I’d gotten a little disgruntled with poetry.  I just couldn’t understand why so much poetry is critically acclaimed and yet completely unintelligible to most readers – not to mention how difficult it is to write a compelling poem.  So I turned to short stories.  As it turns out, writing a short story is like pulling a white rabbit out of a hat.  Both forms require the work of a magician.  So how do writers know which one to adopt?

The answer came to me yesterday morning, during a bike ride with my daughter.  As we coasted along, with my daughter chirping happily in the trailer, I studied my bike.  I thought of how I had bought it in 1993, when I was a freshman in college.  I thought back to the 1993 – where I was, what I was doing, and where I would go next.  Suddenly I realized that I now have everything I had secretly wished for in 1993: a happy marriage, children, a home, and a sense of intellectual satisfaction.  I was overcome with gratitude, and I had a strong sense of the present.  In that moment, I knew my life could not get any better.  I could stop searching for the next, bigger, better stage of my life.

Of course I had the urge to write it all down – the moment, the feeling, the gratitude – but it wasn’t a story.  I didn’t want to fictionalize it or document it in prose.  I simply wanted to capture it and share it, like a kid who catches a firefly in a jar, on a summer night.  And then I realized something:  that, my friend, is a poem.  It’s a feeling, a thought, or a realization you want to capture and share with the world.

So, I picked up a dusty poetry book and decided to read until I found a poem that sings to me.  I found it.  Here it is:

In Our Woods,
Sometimes A Rare Music

By Mary Oliver

Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.
Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone.

From A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver. Copyright 2012 by Mary Oliver.

In one sitting, I read seventy-one pages of Mary Oliver’s book, A Thousand Mornings.  I read the poems quickly, in a half hour.  Perhaps I should apologize to her – after all, can you imagine the time it took to compose those marvelous poems?  But I was gobbling them up like a half pint of Graeter’s ice cream on a night alone on the couch.  Every bite was delicious.  Every one made me gasp and say, “Oh, that’s good!”

I’d like to thank my bike, my daughter, and Mary Oliver for leading me back to poetry and answering a long-standing question.  I’m reminded of poetry’s beauty, relevance, and power to connect us with one another.  Poetry is a conversation about the human experience.  And there’s nothing like a little talk therapy to cure what ails us.