Answers

Mark Strand has died.

His was among the first American poetry I read as a teenage girl (apart from the obligatory Robert Frost of my childhood schooling). I was looking for Answers and Alternatives and poetry often pointed the way into and out of myself.

In true teenage fashion, I especially sought those words I could appropriate for my own emotionally exaggerated ends. My seventeen year old self got some good melancholy mileage out of poems like Keeping Things Whole: 

KEEPING THINGS WHOLE 

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

 

I remember Strand’s Elegy For My Father was particularly impactful too, especially this second section of the long poem. It rendered the complexities and contradictions of truth—the truth of truth—which my sixteen year old self intuited but could not yet articulate (still often can’t).

ANSWERS

Why did you travel?
Because the house was cold.
Why did you travel?
Because it is what I have always done between sunset and sunrise.
What did you wear?
I wore a blue suit, a white shirt, yellow tie, and yellow socks.
What did you wear?
I wore nothing. A scarf of pain kept me warm.
Who did you sleep with?
I slept with a different woman each night.
Who did you sleep with?
I slept alone. I have always slept alone.
Why did you lie to me?
I always thought I told the truth.
Why did you lie to me?
Because the truth lies like nothing else and I love the truth.
Why are you going?
Because nothing means much to me anymore.
Why are you going?
I don’t know. I have never known.
How long shall I wait for you?
Do not wait for me. I am tired and I want to lie down.
Are you tired and do you want to lie down?
Yes, I am tired and I want to lie down.

 

Yes, I am tired and I want to lie down. Wherever I am I am what is missing.

Who was that teenage girl? I can barely remember. But I know those words were my truth, that I found a mirror and comfort in them. I needed them then in a way that I can barely feel or fathom anymore. And perhaps they are the reason I no longer need them with such intensity, if that makes sense. They got me to a different place, a place where they wouldn’t be needed so much, or needed for other reasons. Those lines mean something different to me now and their meaning will change again and again, though they remain the same.

Thanks be to poetry. Thanks be to words and the writers who write them, knowing we might yet still need them long after they are gone. Thank you Mr. Strand.

LINES FOR WINTER 

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

 

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Rag Tag & Sundry

A periodic news and reading roundup

(or: the most interesting, weird and worthwhile ways I procrastinated of late).

I am procrastinating writing about my trip to Seattle for this year’s AWP conference. There’s a lot to process, a lot to think about. I learned a lot.

And in the spirit of ever and always learning…

Quel wonderful!

The Writing University is offering free, online courses in creative writing and literary analysis. Associated with and supported by the University of Iowa, classes are a combination of readings and audio/visual recordings.

I just signed up for their first course, a close reading of the wonderful poem, Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman. The course officially started in February but, as there are no assignments or other requirements, I believe it’s not too late for you to sign up too!

Walt Whitman

Another exciting discovery (and by discovery I mean that I just found out about something everyone else already knows) is the Writing Lessons feature on The American Scholar website.

Each Monday a poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, or a scholar recalls a piece of advice or an experience that was most helpful to their writing career. I like this tiny essay On Weirdness by Nathaniel Rich.

“Life is extraordinarily weird. Art must be weirder.”

And on a completely unrelated note (or maybe not), this GoPro video of a pelican learning to fly is the best. The best!

Bye!

For now, Portland Oregon

A short essay I wrote is up on Orion Magazine’s website.

“My husband wants land. He digs through websites, hoping to uncover a patch we could afford. I want it too but it hurts to see him look at places someone else will live on, or subdivide. It’s not our time, yet. We plant pennies in our bank account and watch them grow too slowly. In the meantime, we live in a condo in the city….”     [continue reading at Orion]

The Big Pink in a Portland Mist.

I love The Place Where You Live feature; I’m glad they brought it back.

And I do love Portland, Oregon—even on days like this one.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Happy Lunar New Year everybody!

Do you celebrate or observe this time of year?

I love fresh starts and seasonal rites. I think of Harvest rather than Halloween, Solstice rather than Christmas presents. I light small candles on Diwali. Today is the first day of Spring in the Gaelic (Irish) calendar, and next month I will welcome it again here in Oregon. I haven’t always seen the world this way but now I’m seeing so many ways to celebrate or quietly observe the days.

Yesterday, I spent a little while in the Lan Su Chinese Gardens. I’m lucky to live just a couple of blocks away and, as we don’t have a garden or even a balcony in our apartment, I buy a yearly membership so that I have a leafy place to go. One day I will have a garden and a wishing tree.

The Wishing Tree

January was  stellar. Busy, intense, frustrating, thrilling. Effing exhausting. Full of doubts and questions and insecurities. All that and my third headcold of the winter. It was great!

Because I made like Woody Guthrie and stuck to my resolutions: worked more and harder, while somehow managing to keep the hopin’ machine running.

I finished writing a story that I started…good lord…six or seven years ago, then returned to in the middle of last year when I brought it to my writing-group saying I think there’s something here. I want to write this story, really write it. 

I pushed myself a lot these past few weeks especially. I have written a story that feels good and truthful to me. It feels complete and not just in the sense that it has a recognizable beginning, middle, and end. It’s out in the submissions ether now. There’s a particular place that I have sent it and I am aiming high. Who knows what will come, but I think it’s okay to take a punt on yourself, dream big etcetera.

I saw this month what happens when you really sit down and commit and work. I have finally ‘got’ it.

I have spent so much time reading author interviews and books on process. So and so wrote standing up, this guy writes in the bathtub. This author has children and this one doesn’t. This guy works in the evening and this gal gets up at 4am to write before her day job. These people don’t have day jobs! I was looking for quick tricks, resisting so much the knowledge that above and before anything else, you need to write. Whether your ass is in an actual chair or not is irrelevant. But you have to write. You have to spend time writing.

Why I never truly got this before is beyond me. I don’t think that either laziness or procrastination or fear is the entire answer. All I know is that something has clicked into place and I just know it for myself.

I have seen my work get better and that has made me more than willing to spend more time with it and forgo the other things that always seemed more important and immediate. It’s hard to spend time with something really crappy. But if you don’t, it stays that way. You have to work.

Again, this is common knowledge, I’m not saying anything new, and I have known this for years but could never quite push through. How things finally connect with me is a mystery. I wish I got things sooner but I am slow to learn my lessons. Though, once I do, I really do, and it is for keeps. I can say that about myself, at least.

This one small story is finished but I am riding on the momentum that I’ve created and am galvanized and ready for the next thing, whatever it may be. I want to try harder at working by a schedule, maybe save myself some last-minute intensity and exhaustion. I also need to make time to be outside more. In the gardens yesterday, I realized just how cooped up in my room and brain I’ve been. Working harder is good but not if we can’t remember what the sky looks like! Things are still a work in process but I’m ready and excited for it. I know what I need to do.

I hope that you (whoever you are) are just where you’re supposed to and ready to be in whatever your particular experience is. And for those who maybe know that they’re ready or want to be ready but don’t feel like they’re able, I encourage you to feel that – but do what you know you need to do anyway. I don’t only mean with writing. I mean whatever your thing is that’s your thing. It’s so hard. But it can be so worth it.

Happy New Year! Happy Spring! Here’s to infinite opportunities to look at things afresh.

Berries in the Garden

Help Me, Hempel

I return often to The Man in Bogotá, a short story by Amy Hempel whose name, I suddenly realize, contains all the letters needed to write the words: May Help Me.

She has and she does.

Amy-Hempel

I am not standing on a ledge, but I have had misgivings about a part-time job I have taken to help pay the bills and have some financial freedom. A woman needs money if she is to write, said Woolf, and time has only made this more true.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky and grateful to have any job in this economy but it is the exact opposite of anywhere I ever thought I would be. It’s not that I even dislike the work; in fact, there is something meditative about its dull repetitiveness. And I have a swivel chair, and a potted plant, the staff are friendly, and it is warm and dry. But there is no future in it that I can see. It is a means to an end and nothing more, and that’s okay too, but a part of my brain is trying to make meaning from it, beyond its practicalities.

It’s in my nature to worry and wonder. I am used to, and accept, this part of myself by now. Simply put, I am curious, expectant, and unsure about what role this new and unplanned experience is going to play in my life beyond a paycheck. And, as at other moments in the past, I’m looking for comfort and reassurance in a story, and asking myself the same question that occurred to the man in Bogotá….

The Man in Bogotá

“The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge – though not, she threatens, for long.

“I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.

“I tell the woman about a man in Bogota. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.

“Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.

“When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then – that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.

“Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogota. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.”

Memoir in ‘E’

I never cared for the name Edna, and I still carry the unreasonableness of a child who appraises a person by the name assigned to them against their consent or knowledge at birth. Why, for example, couldn’t her parents (she was a lady in our church) have called her Effloresce which means to blossom, to flourish, which is not unlike rejuvenation, which is the lovely meaning of unlovely Edna (she was the first woman I ever saw play a guitar and she had the blackest hair).

Memoir in ‘C’

Cant (kant) n. 1. whining, singsong speech, esp. as used by beggars 2. the secret slang of beggars, thieves, etc; argot 3. insincere or almost meaningless talk used merely from convention or habit — to use cant, speak in cant — adj. of, or having the nature of, cant —

CAN’T (kant, känt) can not cannot can’t

I can’t

I can’t

I can’t

CAN  I’m trying to say you more. My tongue trips on your consequences. First I need to learn to say – and mean – I deserve.

“Careful, baby.”

Crossing the street this morning, I accidently bumped into a lady in one of those dark, tailored, masculine, power suits and soiled her power sleeve with the ketchup-soaked sausage sandwich I was carrying.

“Why don’t you look where you’re going?” she screeched at me. Passers-by stopped and stared, but I wasn’t intimidated and I wasn’t scared.

Instead, I imagined she was a loving god or one of those mothers who are so overwhelmed with care for their scattered child, their desperation escapes from their fearful bellies in a cry, in a scream, in a howl at the moon.

She hurried, hissing, on her way. I kept walking in the direction I was going but, every so often, I stopped to look left and right for fast cars, pickpockets and men with brown eyes. I wouldn’t want her to be worrying about me all day.

After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost

Mmm, Autumn, Fall, however you say it.

I went apple tasting today. I like the names even more than the flavours somehow: Ashmead’s Kernel, Criterion, Elstar. Ginger Golden, Jonagold, Honeycrisp. Newtown Pippin and Northern Spy. Spartan, Spitzenberg. Buckeye Gala, Lady, Ambrosia.

My belly is full of tart and crisp, fresh and juicy. I also drank some cider and now I’m sleepy.

After Apple-Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

by Robert Frost.

Why Read the Classics?

I am reading two essays at the moment: Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, and Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino!

The first appears in the book of the same name, translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin in 1999. The second, I stumbled upon at The New York Review of Books, translated by Patrick Creagh and dated 1986.

I was struck by a difference in each version of a sentence in Calvino’s ninth definition of a Classic (the essay ventures fourteen interrelated definitions of what constitutes a Classic Book). In it, he is talking about the personal relationship or rapport that ideally occurs when a classic text ‘works’ upon the reader as a classic:

“If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.” (McLaughin)

“If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love.” (Creagh)

Lord, if someone had shown me McLaughin’s version when I was an impatient, distracted, undergraduate struggling to get it on with Joyce and Chaucer, I may never have completed my degree; I would have been out of that bedroom so fast!

Of course I see where he is coming from in both of these translations: ‘duty’ and ‘should’ are not desirable entry points into a book. And respect is won, rather than assumed and given blindly. But there is a difference in meaning and implication in each of them that I think is interesting.

This is pointless! and It’s no use! strike me as the perfect ‘out’ a sophomoric reader is just waiting to pounce upon. The decisiveness of the words If there is no spark seem like the conclusions of someone expecting instant and unequivocal passion. Not necessarily young, but dare I say immature? Whereas, If the spark doesn’t come seems less impulsive, more considered. It implies an attempt over time. I tried. I worked at it. But it did not come. It’s a pity.

I see both translations, both types of reader, in myself. But I hope I am more the second type these days. How long does one try at something that just isn’t working is a valid question. Yet so often we give up too easily, especially when it’s something that we truly want, and what we truly want is often complex and perplexing and work. Love is work. Sometimes.

And if the spark doesn’t come, the exercise isn’t pointless; all it is is a pity. And there are plenty more classics in the sea.

What is Real Writing? What ‘Counts’?

Monday morning!

A day for promises and beginnings believed. On Monday, things will be different again.

I woke up with the dark because I was chilly, but I was pleased. How wonderful! I’m awake before my alarm. I listened to The Writer’s Almanac, as is my morning habit I’ve decided.

I woke again at 8am to discover I’d fallen asleep. The whole day since has been a question mark. It is National Punctuation Day so it is fitting, I can see that, but still.

Did I sleep in? I’m not sure. I slept past seven, which is the hour I had intended to wake. I slept till eight, which will not do at all and I was very unhappy and filled with fog and disappointment. Does it count that at six I was listening to a poem about sparrows and receiving a reminder that it would be Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday had he failed to die?

What matters? What counts?

Never mind old bean. Forget about this small false start. Carry on old chap. Drink your tea. Eat your porridge.

(I make my porridge – or oatmeal as you might call it – overnight in the slow cooker. This small act of forethought and readiness for each morrow makes me inordinately happy and pleased with myself. If nothing else, I seem to say as I switch it on low and anticipate tomorrow’s warm creaminess, I have achieved this one thing that I know is good for me, both in this prudent moment and again in the morning, each spoonful deliberate and delicious.)

I was going to Write today.

First, I checked my inbox and there was a letter from a friend. Why do I continue to call one set of sentences an Email and another – delivered by the same medium – a Letter? Content, I suppose. Meaningful, engaging, carefully composed sentences perhaps. I have not had a penpal in years. I continued to write letters until it became not so much painfully unbearable but embarrassing that I received none in return. I think about all of the things that were and are done or not done only from fear of embarrassment and I feel ashamed.

I decided to reply to my friend’s questions and concerns at a later time. After all, I had planned to get some Writing done today and I was already so far behind after waking up so early and waking up so late.

Then, another question came to me and, in answer, I set aside my Writing and I set aside my plans and only slightly worried that Writing will never be my number one priority.  I pressed Reply and though not in exactly these words, I said something like Dear Friend.

Many hours later, I did worry and, frustrated, I counted all the things today that were not I Prioritizing Writing.

I counted the hours: One and a bit, I fell back to sleep. Half or so for tea and porridge. Three and a half. Typing typing typing. Head bent low. Deliberate. Thoughtful. Engaged. My dear friend. Three and a half hours! On an email?

And I counted the words: One thousand, five hundred and forty. The number of words I removed because they were not precisely what I wished to say to them, were too indulgent, whose tangents were needless though not untrue or even all that bad.

Two thousand and eighty-four is the number of words that finally said something like life is a beautiful and terrifying risk but we must.

I was hungry, then. It was after noon. I heated some dal, bit down on a cardamom pod; it was not unpleasant and yet I spat it out. Why? So many questions. Suddenly, it was one and I should have finished Writing by now and ready to put on my running shoes.

My sister phoned from Ireland then. We hadn’t planned on it but we spoke for an hour and sometimes she even listened as I begged her to hear me say something like Trust.  Believe. Just Breathe. Do not ever worry. I love you. I love you. Oh Just Get Over It.

I’m still in my pajamas.

It’s almost four.

Nothing went the way.

May as well salvage something with a blog post.

(What is real Writing? What are words for unless to cheer a heart on or shake someone you love and fear for? What counts? What counts as me being the person-writer I want to be? Oh, when will I ever do one fucking thing that I say I’m going to?)