Saturday, December 5, 2009

First Snow Poem

One of the things I've been thinking about is how to write baby/children poems without falling into the cliche of "wonder." Of course both babies are amazed by the world and I'm amazed by them...and I want some of that in the collection, but it feels like that has to be handled very carefully and I can't have many of those poems.

I'm also trying to stay honest to the experience, and not shape poems to my expectations. I always find this harder than it should be when writing. It's amazing what a strong pull the world of images has on us in this way--magazines, movies, etc.--we have such clear images about what things should be that it's hard to see past those to the way they really are. Anyone else have trouble with this?

Here's one I'm working on now--not sure if this works or not.

First Snow

It snowed, as it nearly always does,
on Hallowe'en morning.

I buttoned your blue coat over your jammies,
slipped on your boots, and took you out

to meet the fat, thick flakes. You are 2,
and although you held your hands out

as I showed you, and watched the snow melt
in your palm, and the ground slowly disappear,

this was not magical to you. This was not
stars filling a dark ground, a cover moving up

a cold, empty bed. You kept turning
toward the door, wanting in, wanting

your blanky and a cup of milk. For you, this was
just change, the world turning on you once again,

and you know exactly how to deal with it:
go inside the warm, familiar house.

Drink a cup of warm milk. Hold your blanky to your face.
Inhale its familiar, sleepy smell.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Borrowed Stories

One of the things I'm working on now is collecting other's stories and working them into poems. Right now I'm collecting baby stories and blending them in with my own stories.

I've been wanting to be more narrative in my poems, but less "confessional" and this seems like maybe an interesting balance between the two. I'm interested in how I could take someone else's story and make it my own poem--or a poem all of us can connect to. I'm also curious about what readers think of this "borrowing" idea. I've changed details in all of the stories, changed names, etc. in an attempt to make the poem more mine, and to not expose the original storyteller (this is a small town, after all). This is of course what fiction writers do in every story, so I don't feel unethical about it. But I am concerned that the poems will feel like they belong to me. Thoughts?

Here's one of the new ones I'm working on:

Heart Lottery

After her first son was born
with a heart defect, she insisted
on having testing done in the second
pregnancy. Her doctor said no,
her doctor said, better chance of winning the lottery than a second defect
her doctor said insurance.
But she insisted: order the test. I'll pay for it.
I'll fly to Seattle. I'll be the foolish one.
And so she did—lying on the crinkly, vinyl bed
in the quiet room, ultrasound machine humming
like nervous thoughts over her head, the tech
bored and humming too, and then—there it was—
the winning-the-lottery-second-defect, this one not even the same defect.
They stared at the little thumping heart
opening and closing the wrong way. They would do surgery
the day after he was born. If you would have had this baby
in Ketchikan
, the heart specialist told her, he would have died.
Which she had known, and hadn't known.
She had simply scratched her thumb against her own fearful heart,
hoping for the one break she needed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Stereotype Busting

So the exercise we did in class this week was to introduce a stereotype and then break it, either in a scene or in a poem. I had them first create a list of the qualities of a stereotyped person, and then write from there. The idea was to embrace some aspects of the stereotype and break others. I always do the exercises I assign my students, just to make sure they work. I had fun with this one!

This Church Lady

Gloria is, in fact, a good cook—
and she signs up regularly for after-service treats:

but what she brings is chili peppers
stuffed with goat cheese, and homemade salsa.

She slaps her son's hand
as he reaches for another chip, says in a whisper,

goddammit Harry, knock it off.

After she gets the kids off to school
(no home school for her, Jesus no)

she descends into her finished basement
in pink feathered flip-flops, black coffee in hand,

to work in her studio. She paints fruit
in erotic positions, life-size nudes of a gay friend

who models for her. Right now she is working
on a banjo—she paints it over and over,

its pregnant belly opened to a cave of sound,
it strings taut as stretch marks.

You can tell, just by looking at that banjo,
how much she hates that thing, how much she hated

being pregnant, how much she hates
the church choir with its uplifting gospel bluegrass

and her red-haired husband, in the back row,
strumming and singing, eyes closed, in perfect grace.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

In the Poetry Blahs

So, a black-clad, cliched poet, I'm waffling wildly between euphoria over a new poem and depression at the general state of my poetry portfolio. Anyone else experience the same sort of celebrate/miserate mix?

I'm working on three projects right now, and this makes me think I'm hedging my bets. Maybe I need to commit to just one? I'm always most excited about the newest stuff, and this makes me less eager to be committed to older work--the stuff more likely, I know, to get published or turned into a book. I need to sit down and revise a manuscript, but I keep finding myself writing new poems instead.

The 3rd project, my newest, is just starting to form in my head. I'm finding myself (not surprisingly) writing a lot of baby poems. This delights and horrifies me. I mean, baby poems? Who is going to want to read those besides grandmothers? But I can't seem to stop myself...I'm addicted. So, could this be a project? Or am I dreaming? Right now I'm conceiving the book as a blend of personal, lyric poems about my girls, spliced into narrative poems about other children/parents/babies, most of which right now are very dark (babies dying of sids, child abuse, etc.). So I know it won't be a sweetness-and-light book, but could it work?

Here's one of the new, probably ill-fated poems.

Sleeping with Ellie, Four Months

I wake at 11:00, 3:00, 6:30
to your little arm waving
in the dark.

Your fingers rake the air
testing the waters, to see if
I am still near.

A little snore floats past,
the leaves of a dream,
a current of cold.

I reach out and pluck
you into the boat
of me, curve around you,

fill your mouth
with my warm breast
and listen to you draw me in.

All around us the cold night
air currents and eddies,
against the timbers of our sleep

and I can imagine it's this easy
to keep you this close, this safe,
above the world's deep waters.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

September 27, 58° N

September 27, 58° N

We stay up late to watch
the last cruise ship leave—

the Zaandam with its sheets
of yellow lights, curtained deep

into the still, black water.
We watch until the last edge of light

is drawn aside and then
we can see the dark stage

of water, the delicious
drama of winter, about to start.

What is summer with its flash
and sweetness compared to this?

Bring on the leafless trees,
the skim of ice on curb,

the shimmer of light on a cold glass window.
We can hardly wait

to see who will first appear
on stage, rising out of the deep

place we visit, when the house lights
finally go down.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Poem

Wrote this one this morning; still in the very early stages of revision.

Lincoln City, Oregon

We sit in the new parking lot and watch
the fun: a kite surfer, a Frisbee game,
children with buckets and spades--
everyone frolicking on the beach.

They don't know any better.
They've never seen this beach without
the looming hulk of the new casino
rising up above them,

the thousand parking spots,
the new access road that runs by
the bi-mart instead of the old two-lane
through a rich green tunnel of trees.

The windowless buffet in the casino
instead of the old Dunes Café
salt-crusted windows looking over the waves
and German pancakes with lemon and sugar.

(Nothing as far as the eye could see
but a few shingled cottages and cliffs
of rocks where seabirds nest. A winding
road above bordered in wild roses.)

Of course they are going to have fun--
it's what they came to do, after all. They won't
miss what has been lost, what my family
had for three generations.

Maybe it's always this way. We have to love
what's left--the strip of sand and wind--
because we want to love,
want to escape to the beach,

want to frolic, even if it's in a diminished
world--otherwise, we sit in the car above it all,
diminished ourselves. But how can I leap
out now and track through the waves, singing?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New Poem

Sleeping with Ellie, Four Months

I wake at 11:00, 3:00, 6:30
to your little arm waving
in the dark.

Your fingers rake the air
testing the waters, to see if
I am still near.

A little snore floats past,
the leaves of a dream,
a current of cold.

I reach out and pluck
you into the boat
of me, curve around you,

fill your mouth
with my warm breast
and listen to you draw me in.

All around us the cold night
air currents and eddies,
against the timbers of our sleep

and I can imagine it's this easy
to keep you this close, this safe,
above the world's deep waters.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ha Jin

Just finished Ha Jin's newest novel A Free Life. Amazing! He's definitely in my top 5 authors. The protagonist in this novel owns a Chinese restaurant in Georgia and wants to be a poet. It's heartbreaking and has so many truths about the difficulty of trying to be a writer. The novel ends with a collection of poems written by the protagonist. Here's one:

Another Country

You must go to a country without borders,
where you can build your home
out of garlands of words,
where broad leaves shade familiar faces
that no longer change in wind and rain.
There's no morning or evening,
no cries of joy or pain;
every canyon is drenched in the light of serenity.

You must go there quietly.
Leave behind what you still cherish.
Once you enter that domain,
a path of flowers will open before your feet.

This is the first week of my new tenure track job, and the first time I've ever been paid to write. I've written so little in the past two years--all my time has been teaching and caring for the babies. I've let my writing slide and fallen into the exact trap I tell my students not to fall into. But now that I'm getting paid to do it, I won't have any excuses.

I'm really struck by the line "leave behind what you still cherish." Any time writing is time away from the girls...yet it's work I love, too. And maybe there's a way to be with them, even while working. I've wanted to write about them, but like religion, or the other things I care about, it's such a large topic I feel lost in the shadow it casts. I guess all I can do is plunge in.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dream Poem poem to post because I dreamt it instead of writing it. Does this ever happen to any of you?

I believe poems come to us in our most unconscious states, but that they only come once--if we miss it, it's gone. And of course the poems we dream are always brilliant in our memories aren't they? I can't remember a single line, but I remember that glow that comes right after a good poem is written….

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Waiting for the Baby

So the doctor put me on bed rest this week. While it's agonizing to be inside, looking out at everyone on the beach, it is good motivation to write poems. Here's a very new one, not yet edited.

Turning Two

- For AnnaCaroline

Do you remember your tears
and panic last night? How you let me
hold you for a long time, your small
head tucked into my neck?

You are still my baby,
my little bug, my sweetest thing.
You will still sit on my lap, still call
to me in your dark dreams.

But I can also see the cocoon of you
spinning, wrapping your baby self
away, starting a new body as startling
as a luna moth, who will wake up one day

and realize how much more of the world
is now below, how reachable that branch
is. And we will love this you, too,
your wing against my cheek,

your flight rising in my throat.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tidal Echoes Cover & David Woodie's Art

One of my favorite moments of publishing the journal is seeing the cover. This year the graphic design work is being done by two designers at Capital City Weekly, the local paper that is co-publishing with us now. Katie Spielberger is doing the layout and design and Anna Millard designed the cover. The cover features work by UAS professor David Woodie. His image is above. Amazing, isn't it?

I hadn't seen Woodie's work until the galley proofs of the journal came through and this one just knocked me flat. I go to gallery walk and look at art like any respectable Juneau citizen, but it rarely really bowls me over, and this one really did. I just love this. Somehow it captures exactly how I feel about Juneau.

Poetry Contest

The Fairbanks Arts Association called yesterday to let me know my poem "Proof" won 3rd prize in this year's contest. The FAA holds a yearly contest for all Alaskan poets, with a category for youth and one for adults. It's so great to see literary arts being promoted this way in Alaska. There always seems to be so much for the visual artists and not much for us writers.

So the awards ceremony is tonight in Fairbanks but of course I'm not going. When I talked to Seth, he said none of the winners will be in Fairbanks so he is arranging to call each of us and have us read our poems over the phone. This will be my first phone reading! I'm sitting by the phone now, waiting for him to call.

Here's the poem that won:


We have photo after photo
of splashes—

white wings of water
against blue silk,

swirls and eddies
where just a moment ago

a fin, a head, a tail
disappeared into the quiet dark

of the sea. And this is just how
it should be, when we show photos

down south at Christmas to curious
relatives, contemplating Alaska.

This is just how it should be
when we try to remember our own lives

and what brought us to this
moment. We can see the imprint

of hope on the surface of our faces,
while in our bellies, something dives


A few summers ago when AnnaCaroline was just a baby Corey's mom and dad came up to Juneau and we went on a whale-watching cruise. It's actually the first one I've been on since we moved here 13 years ago. Corey's dad is a photographer and he got these beautiful, amazing photos of humpbacks. Most of mine are of AnnaCaroline and splashes in the water. It's funny how often something that doesn't work, or turn out liked I had hoped, ends up in a poem. Poems are always good consolation prizes.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Poem

Last Saturday I read at the Silverbow with a group of local writers. It was fun to see what other poets in Juneau are working on right now.

This is one of the poems I read:

Museum of Natural History, New York

Finally, the day when we will visit the Museum—
a long break between conference talks

and we all go—daddy, grandparents,
and you, rattling under the park and into

the belly of that amazing place.
I’ve been dreaming of the bones of sea turtles

for days. We walk
and walk and walk—you tucked against

my back, looking, looking
and soon we are overwhelmed.

How can we remember all these facts?
How can we hold the vision of so many

birds in our minds? Case after case
documenting a world we need to know better.

Finally, you whimper and save us both.
We slip away from the group

and into the blue whale room—
a life size replica slung from the ceiling

and the whole room, dark and blue
and cool. Below the whale is just a patch

of carpet and all the mothers and babies
are here on the floor. I take you out of your pack

put you down, and we both lie back
under the whale. It fills our whole

sight, going on forever, this view of a whale
that only nursing calves must see.

We follow its belly lines and they are the latitude
lines of the whole world. I reach out and touch

your head, as the quiet washes over us,
as we rest under the sea, and I remember

how I fit with you, and I remember who I am,
in this vast, unknowable world.

This one seemed to get the best response of the 6 poems I read. Maybe because it's the most narrative? I'm still kicking around the idea that poetry readings are hard because we can't follow lyric or meditative poetry orally. Do we need something narrative to hang on to when we're listening?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tidal Echoes

How embarrassing...almost a year since I've posted! But it's been a busy one. AnnaCaroline is almost two...I'm pregnant with our 2nd baby (a girl), and in between I've been working like crazy at UAS.

I'm the faculty advisor for Tidal Echoes the Southeast Alaskan literary journal. This week the editorial board has made final decisions on which pieces get included and which get cut. It's always interesting and difficult to make these choices.

Other than working with the student editors, who are fantastic, my favorite aspect of this project is seeing the amazing diversity of topics we Southeast Alaskans write about. We don't restrict our journal to any particular subject matter--something I think is absolutely necessary for a place that has such a "brand" to the rest of the world. It's a relief and joy to see poems written about something other than whales; to see stories written about biking in Arizona, or fighting with your wife. The journal is a much more accurate reflection of who we really are here, and the of the lives we live in this amazing archipelago.

If you want to see the work we do, check out a preview of last year's journal:

The launch party for this year's journal is April 11, 7:00 pm at UAS. Everyone is invited!