Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Manuscript Draft #6

I'm elbow deep in manuscript revision right now. I finally have a whole week to myself to write. And this is turning out to be a lot of fun. I'm finishing this book in a completely different way than the last one. I am writing poems specifically for this book--to solidify motifs, to fill narrative holes, etc. It's a really interesting way to work.

When I was at AWP we talked a lot about how to avoid "filler poems" (i.e. weaker poems there simply to complete a narrative or fulfill some other purpose) and this has been something I've really been wrestling with. There are a few poems I feel need to be in to give shape and meaning to the book, but some of them are not as strong as other poems. The advice given by a few writers at the conference was to slash and burn--don't let any poem in the door if it's not a great poem (or as close to great as we can get). At first blush, I agree--every poem in the book should be a "good" poem. But on the other hand, I'm starting to really believe in the idea of "poem conversations" and how poems really do shape and affect those on either side. So if a poem significantly changes and enhances a poem next to it, isn't that enough justification to stay in the book? It's doing its work, isn't it?

I had a great moment this week when I sent two poems to a writer friend asking her which I should put in. They are both about Eve and naming the animals. One was just published in Cirque (which is a really terrific new journal, btw), but I really wasn't sure it was done so I wrote a new version. Robyn, my friend, suggested I put both in--why not have several Eve poems? she asked. This was like a little explosion of light for me. I could do an Eve sequence in the book, which would help tie all the major motifs of the book together. It's so awesome to have good poet friends. Thank you Robyn!

Here's the Eve poem published in Cirque.

Eve, Becoming

As I flip through the Sibley Guide,
looking up a duck who arrives
with a splash,
I wonder about Eve—

did she learn from Adam
the name Northern Pintail?
Was she taking notes
as he said Mallard, Blackbird?

Or did the birds tell her
(as Adam checked them off
his life list), winging over her
look at me, my loose
bones of flight

their names just opening
on the wet tongue of her heart—

and suddenly she knew them
like she knew everything—

this is a goose,
this quiet place by the river Tigris
is mine, and my name is Eve.
Recognize me.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Post-Conference Glow

The Kachemak Bay Writer's Conference was fabulous! One thing I didn't anticipate, but loved, was really getting to know other Alaskan writers better. Joan Kane (winner of a Whiting Award) was there and it was terrific to get to know her. Her book The Cormorant Hunter's Wife is beautiful. Peggy Shumaker, Sherry Simpson, and Nancy Lord were there too. We all took a great harbor cruise together and chatted about politics, poems, and the writing life. It was a real treat for me.

I got lots of good advice while I was there too. One thing that really stuck with me that several people mentioned during the week, was the importance of having a writing community. One writer said she hated networking and finally realized that poets and writers don't really "network" in the true sense of that word...they become friends. And through the years, those friendships yield opportunities. She said thinking of it this way helped her get out there and meet other writers. I like this thought...and I think she's right. In the last few months I've started corresponding with a few poets I admire (including Tom Sexton who has a new book coming out with the University of Alaska Press) and it's been wonderfully encouraging. Writing is such a solitary act, and one that requires such courage...so having others along the way struggling to do the same work is helpful. We speak the same language, we fight the same battles...it's good to have each other.

Tonight I'm feeling so grateful to be part of such a rich, writing community. There is some truly outstanding work being written in Alaska right now, and the writers I got to know this weekend proved themselves to be as generous and warm as they are talented.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Getting Ready for Kachemak Bay

I've been working like mad to get ready for the Kachemak Bay Writer's Conference. I'm leading 2 workshops, sitting on 2 panels, meeting with a writer to review her manuscript, and giving a reading. I really hope it will be a productive and energizing week for all of us going.

I've also been working like crazy on my manuscript, since I'm mostly going to read from that for my reading. Right now it's really helpful for me to read it in public and get some audience feedback. I spent all weekend with it spread around the living room floor trying to arrange it. I'm feeling pretty good about it now, but it feels like it still has a ways to go.

Here's a new poem I'm thinking of including in it:

Sleeping in Charon’s Wake

Some things
always wake us—a tug, coming in, at 3:00 am
prop boiling the water like a boat crossing
the Styx, our own boats slamming the dock in the wake.
I open my eyes and see powerful sodium lights
shining into the hatch over my head,
hear the shouts as the tug fights the current,
and a man leaps to the dock, to get a wrap around a cleat.

And other things
don’t wake us. Jonie, eating at the pub on steak&prawn
night, drinking her usual bottle of wine, slips
coming down the dock, slips
into the cool, green river next to her own boat
which must have rocked a little bit, in the wake
of her body. Which must have rocked, a little bit,
in the wake, of her body.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

5,670 Poems in the Trash

One of the things that keeps me from sitting down at my computer every morning is the fear of bad poems. It's so discouraging to write a bad poem--even more so than writing no poem at all (it could have been a good poem, right?).

I'm going to be on a panel at the Kachemak Bay Writer's Conference titled What I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me 10 Years Ago and I've been thinking about what I want to contribute to the discussion. I think my biggest regret is simply that I didn't write more poems (well, and that I didn't find Mary Oliver 10 years earlier).

When I was an undergrad at Colby I met the National Book Award-winning poet William Stafford. I cheekily emailed him a letter and some poems since he was living in Portland, where I was from. Amazingly, he wrote me back, said he liked my poems (which was an act of enormous generosity on his part because they were terrible) and invited me to come chat with him when I got home for the summer. So I did--I rode the bus up to Lewis & Clark college one day and we chatted about poetry for a few hours. It sort of felt like one of those imaginary conversations you have with God--if you had two hours, what would you talk about? I can't remember now what we did talk about, but I remember his kindness and his encouragement to keep writing, no matter what.

He said once that he wrote a poem every day of his life. In preparing for this conference I looked him up and it turns out he published 57 volumes of poetry. He didn't publish his first book until he was 48. So, if we assume he started writing seriously then (and of course he'd have been writing before then), and we assume each book has about 40 poems (the average) then he published approximately 2,280 poems (obviously I'm guessing here, but go with me on this). So, then if we assume he was true to his word and wrote a poem every day of his life, for 30 years, that means he wrote approximately 7,950 poems. So, if we do the math...that means that National Award-winning poet William Stafford threw away approximately 5, 670 poems!

That really helped put things in perspective for me.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Really really stuck on a poem

I've been working on a new poem for the manuscript and I'm really stuck--more stuck than I've ever been. Usually when this happens I just throw a poem in a drawer and forget about it for a year....but I have a little deadline on this one. I submitted an early draft of it to the journal terrain.org and the editor told me he liked it, but it needed to be revised (he's absolutely right). So, I need to get it to him soon, but the more I work on it, the worse it gets. I've shown it to two poet friends, both of whom gave me good advice, but that's not getting me there either. I;ve tried all the revision tricks I know...even tried turning it into an extended haiku at one point, but that was just pathetic.

Here it is, in its current, sad mutation. If anyone has any advice, please, post away!


Sleeping at the dock,
curled in the v-berth
is like living
again in a womb—
all motion, and muffled
is that someone
speaking out there?
It’s a skin
separating us from the cold
waters of the world.
Inside it’s soft light
and a worn quilt,
wrapping us in warmth.

And like a ripened womb,
the boat is made to empty
us into the world.
Every few days,
we emerge,
heads rising up
out of the hatch,
to a new world,
a new marina, a new cove,
unfamiliar trees,
and water with new
hazards to learn.
We will cut our tether,
once again,
and let go
into the rush of current
flushing us swiftly,
out to sea,
out into the world
of large waters
where anything can happen.

In the moment
before leaving, we always
I stand on deck,
feeling the hum of the belly
beneath me, hand
on the umbilicus of line,
hesitating, hesitating—
wanting to slip
back below, curl up,
and sleep
in the belly of safe.
But also loving
the whole new world
just around the next

Monday, May 17, 2010

Reading to Edit

Last night I did a reading with Nancy Lord at the Downtown library. We had a very small but enthusiastic crowd; we got some terrific questions afterward, so that was fun.

I decided to read mostly new poems to see how they played to an audience. This has become my new favorite way to edit poems--reading them, and feeling out an audience. Before Freshly Rooted came out I did a few readings here and there, but not many. But after it came out and I started doing readings, I realized how incredibly valuable that experience is as an editing tool.

It works two ways for me. First, and most obvious, I get an audience reaction. Last night I read a poem from Freshly Rooted that I'd never read in public before and it got a lot of laughter...something I hadn't really anticipated. It's not a funny poem to me...but once I was reading, I could see it as funny, and the laughter made sense. This has really changed my understanding of the poem, actually. Also helpful (although painful) is when I read a poem and the audience is just quiet--and I can tell the poem is falling flat. So the laughter, or sighs, or dead silence all give me clues about how well a poem is floating.

Second, it makes me edit with an even harsher pen. As soon as I'm reading, it's like I have these new glasses on and I can see weak lines or phrases in a way I've not seen them before. It's like I'm becoming a hyper-editor. I actually often edit while I'm reading.

So, it was really useful to read some new poems last night to gauge reactions; this is going to really help me edit those individual poems and the book as a whole. I'm going to be reading at the Kachemak Bay Writer's Conference in a few weeks and I think I'll read mostly new poems there too...but maybe different poems than I read last night. It would be great if I could get the chance to read most of the book at various readings before it comes out.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Euphoria and Reality

After I draft a new poem, in that first rush of euphoria, my impulse is always to give it to someone. Invariably, I'm in love. Look at this poem I've birthed! I've spun out of pure air! Isn't it amazing?

And then I have to remember, that not everyone wants to kiss a new baby, and not every baby is cute.

I really have to fight the impulse to share, because the poem is almost never done--usually, not even close. Most poems go through months--some even years--of drafts before they are done. The ones I love when I finish usually have a seed of rightness and possibility about them, but that's often about it--so much of it's not yet developed. I think that impulse to share is that longing for someone else to confirm that yes, it has potential. Yes, it might just be a good poem.

One of my goals this summer is to really work on revision. I think the impulse to stop too soon is really strong--for me certainly, and I think for a lot of poets. I think sometimes that's what workshop is all about...us telling us other, kindly and firmly, to keep working. It's not ready. Keep working, it's not ready. We have to learn over and over that even though a poem can be drafted in a few minutes, that doesn't mean it's a finished poem.

Some days I like best the initial writing--that euphoria of a good birth. And some days I like much better the revision--the tinkering with words, the cutting of bad lines, the assurance that it will get better with a little more work. There's no assurance that a new poem has potential. I throw most of them away. A lot of poets do. William Stafford wrote a poem every day of his adult life. If an average book has 40 or so poems in it, and an average time between books is 5 years, that's approximately 1,785 poems thrown away. It's hard to sit down (or get up in the morning) and write one of those 1,785 poems. But we have to write those, to get the 40 good ones.

Today I wrote a new one that I think might be a good one and I rewrote one that badly needed to be pushed back in and germinated a bit more. So, this feels like a good day. I'm savoring this, knowing how many not good ones there are, to come. And I'm resisting the urge to post that new poem here.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Poem Conversations

Here's a picture of my book in progress.

One of the sessions I attended at AWP was about manuscript organization. It was so helpful--really, amazing ideas from a slew of poets. One of the things one of them said was to think about the conversations poems have with each other and use that as a structuring principle. Of course poems do talk to each other, and the poems directly before and after a poem affect the way we read a poem...so, conversations.

I finally took a day off from grading, locked myself in my office, and spent 4 hours working on structuring my book. I thought about it's "spine" poems, it's opening and closing poems, and its conversations. It was amazing to start grouping them together. I did it wholly intuitively...not by topic or theme, but by obsession and intuitive linking. One thing they emphasized was that we obsess when we write poems, and often a particular obsession shows up in muliple poems. We don't want to necessarily put them together, but to let them refrain. So with that principle in mind, I worked obsessively/intuitively instead of in any kind of surface organization. It was really cool to see how certain poems changed as they started sparking against other poems.

I made an enormous mess on my office floor (once again, Virginia Woolf proving herself right about "a room of one's own"). So I could teach the next day I stuck them all up with magnets on my wall, and I'm doing to let them germinate there for a while, to see how they work and grow together.

Now this is the fun work of writing.

Monday, April 26, 2010

All Promotion, No Writing

One of the recurring themes at this year's AWP was about self-promotion. I just hate doing that and I've avoided it for a long time. It makes me feel so uncomfortable. But a lot of pretty persuasive arguments were made there. Small publishers simply can't do this any more, and it really is up to us to do it. It's part of what makes us "good writers" for our hard-working, under-funded publishers. So I'm determined to do a better job.

But...I do lament the time it takes. I am really struggling right now to find the time to write. When I got this job in September I was so thrilled that I was now getting paid to write, and I vowed to write 8 hours a day, no matter what. I had the great motivation of my "job" to do it! That worked for the first two weeks. Now I'm averaging about an hour every other week. It's so pathetic. And I can really see it in my work. I've had two editors ask me for work this past month and I feel like I'm picking through the bottom of the vegetable bin for them. Somehow I need to find the time--make the time--to do this. I keep telling myself "I'll write this summer" but I'm teaching this summer too, so I know the temptation to teach instead of write will still be there. Or the temptation to work on my web page, or work on a submission. I suspect part of this is also just me being anxiuos about my writing, and avoiding it. Time to dive back in. Time to stop blogging and write a poem!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Un-Dog Poem

Ok, so I'm 6 hours late. But this is still my Monday post. :-)

My publisher at Salmon is putting together an anthology of dog poems called Dogs Singing and asked me for a poem. I don't have a dog, so I initially decided I'd forgo this one...but then realized that a dog anthology could have all sorts of dog poems, and the bigger the variety, the better.

This one's not quite finished, and I don't know if my publisher will like it or take it, but here goes:

The Un-Dog Poem

- for Jessie

This is not a poem about dogs.
This is also not a poem about cats,
and their terrible grace,
and the way they make any woman ungainly.

This is not a poem about
babies and their hungry mouths, mewling
through the night.

This is not a poem about
books, the fresh glue smell, and uncracked
spine of an unread novel.

If this were a poem about these things,
it would be a poem full of wishes,
and heartaches.

It would be a poem about the way

a dog looks, running along the hard-packed
sand of an Alaskan beach, April, long sun setting,
herding a flock of sandpipers and gulls—

symbolizing the old things
we all want—
joy, grace, spirit.

If this poem were about that dog,
it would be a poem of such longing,
and such regret.

And who has the time, anyway,
for such indulgences?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Monday Posts

I just got back from the AWP conference in Denver and I'm newly inspired! My new resolution is to post a new poem or comment on this blog every Monday. I'm trying to balance actual writing time with writing about writing; once a week posts feels like a reasonable goal.

So I'll share here conference highlights. AWP is the largest creative writing conference held annually; 8,000 people came this year. My favorite moments:

- My publisher asked me if I had a manuscript because she wants to publish my 2nd book (that really holds the 1-10 spots as favorite moments!!).

- Hanging out at the Salmon Poetry table with the other Salmon poets who attended. I made new friends with Tyler Farrell and Susan Miller DuMar and reconnected with old Salmon buddies Simmons Buntin, Eamon Wall, and Kevin Higgins.

- Watching Terry Tempest Williams read a beautiful, heartbreaking essay.

- Watching Gary Snyder read.

- Attending a panel on "Mamas and poetry" and discovering I'm not alone in my obsession with writing about babies; I got so many good ideas about how to do it and encouragement not to hide it any longer!

- Meeting up with other Alaskan writers Erin Hollowell, Barbara Shepherd, and Carol Schirmer.

All in all, an amazing, productive, inspiring week for me!