Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Zazen Poetry & Zen Haiku

Two weeks ago in workshop we started reading The Poetry of Zen (edited by the excellent Sam Hamill).  In his intro he talks about the practice of zazen, and that got me thinking about poetry as being an act of meditation--both as we write, and as we read.

In class we talked about the three concepts of zazen:  body + mind + breath.  And suddenly it seemed so clear how that translates to poetry--those three concepts are so important in poetry too.  Body = image, mind = statement, and breath = rhythm.  It was really cool to make that discovery and then start explicating zen poems to see how the poems respond to those elements.  After our discussion, I asked my students to write zen poems for the following week, and they did an amazing job--some of them really blew us away.

This week we focused on haiku, and on the structural elements of haiku.  One that I really got excited about was using the structure of "comparison" where two images come together "to complete each other" (in the words of Jane Reinhold, Haiku-master and scholar).  I love the idea of neither image being complete, but in coming together, forming a whole.  We talked about "association" haiku too--that two seeminly different things come together because everything is part of the whole.  This seems like a very Zen concept too.  I talked my students through this structure (and 7 other ones) in class. To prepare, I tried to write in each structure.  Here is my haiku using "association":

Breastfeeding in Winter

snow rushing down
milk rising up

It's been really nice to return to haiku, and to think about poetry in this pure, simple form.  One poem we studied had only one multi-syllable word in it.  All had gorgeous rhythm, mostly iambic.  And most of them had no adjectives, no embellishment.  It was good for all of us, as we get into the final crazy weeks of the semester, to do a little zazen breathing, and meditate on these poems.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Persona Poems

This week in my advanced workshop we're reading Luci Tapahonso and talking about persona poems.  I've written a few before, and a few Eve poems for the Liveaboard book, but it was interesting this week to really dig in and think about what they can do.

Tapahonso has a persona poem in which she inhabits an entire group of people--it's very moving, very sad.  I've never seen a plural first person persona poem before.  It made me think about how tough it is to speak for an entire group of people.

We also talked a lot about how first person gives us so many "rights" that 3rd person doesn't.  If I'm writing in 3rd person, I can't "pretend" to know the details of someone's story, but if I write in 1st person, I can. It's such an odd thing--because of course it's all invented. But somehow writing in the first person gives us permission to inhabit someone and to invent details.

I've been working on a poem about Mary giving birth to Jesus and it's written in the 3rd person.  After this week's class I'm wondering if it should be a persona poem.  Would 1st person give me more authority?  More permission?  Would it make it more "believable" and intimate?  Things to think about, I guess.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Risking Offending

So I wrote a surprising poem this week.  It's a poem about a really personal, physical thing and it definitely risks offending a number of people (my mom is probably first on that list).  And this of course has made me return to that age-old workshop question:  how do we handle this?

A few weeks ago when Peggy Shumaker was in my class a student asked her this.  She answered it well, like many other writers have, which is that each of us individually has to decide how to handle it.  For her, the risk was worth it.  She told the class her memoir had in fact offended a family member, but she wasn't sorry she had written it the way she had.  And of course we are all grateful she did--it's such an honest portrayal of family life.

Generally, I've tried to avoid this in my work.  There are stories I'm not yet ready to tell.  But reading Tender Hooks  gave me this big push this week.  Fennelly's so brutally honest in her poems.  I don't want to write like her, but somehow I stepped through that door a little bit.  And I have to confess, I love the poem.  I may not like it in a month, but I'm in love now (don't you love that initial crush we get on our new poems?).  One thing that surprised me was how much it affected me.  It's been rare that one of my own poems has changed the way I see the world--often I feel like I'm just trying to explain how I already feel.  (This has made me stop and think about what I'm actually doing with poems, since I do believe they should change us as we write.  But that's another topic.)  I feel really invigorated this week by this poem, and by the whole process of writing.  And surprisingly empowered.

I'm not yet feeling too nervous or apologetic about it.  The poem is about breastfeeding and talks a lot about the shape of my body, and the way we view women's bodies.  I do believe honesty is important in these poems--as a mother I've gained incredible strength from reading Fennelly's poems, and from talking honestly to my mom friends.  So I have to believe if I can make this poem work, it'll be worth it to other moms.  Now I just have to think about whether or not I'm ready to risk offending my own mom.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Writing into Scaryiness

For the first time this week I wrote a poem that felt really a bit scary--not something I normally do.   I've been reading Tender Hooks by Beth Ann Fennelly and loving it.  I've read it before, but it's such an amazing book and teaching me so much again.  She's incredibly open and brave in that book, and it's pushing me to be too, I think.  I've been writing poems about various biblical women and about really personal aspects of my body--both subjects I've avoided in the past.  But I sort of feel exhilarated, too, so I keep writing.

But this week a kind of odd thing happened.   A friend from college asked to see what I was working on, so I sent her a new poem. Her response was positive but really guarded--almost as if the poem had frightened or offended her. This made me sort of freak out too. I haven't been reading any of the poems I'm writing because I feel like I'm surfing the wave a little bit, and I don't want to fall off.  Sometimes reading new material makes me stop writing, as I begin to see the mistakes in it.  But after her comments, I started reading...but actually like a lot of what I'm doing.  So I sent a couple of the poems off to a writer friend whom I really trust, and she loved them, so that was a huge relief.  She's typically really honest with me, so I trust her when she tells me to just keep going.

It's getting to be midterm, which is usually when I get too buried in papers to grade.  This semester I've really promised myself it wouldn't happen.  Fingers crossed!  I want to keep surfing!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Printing Old Poems

Lately I've gotten nervous about losing poems, so over this past week I've been running through my folders and printing out old poems and throwing them in a notebook. I've been in a rush so I haven't been reading more than a line or two of each, as they print...but that's been enough to surprise me.

I've been writing Lucy poems like mad--afraid that if I don't get some poetry down about having a baby (birth, babyhood, nursing, etc.) I'll forget it and I'd really like to work with this material.  But as I've printed, I've realized how much I've actually managed to write over the past few years, and most of that has been about babies.  I've actually got several hundred poems.

I think I may  have forgotten (or blocked) the idea of writing about babies, because for so long I felt like it wasn't going to be something I could do much with--I just needed to write it, and I never direct my subject matter, so I wrote--but it seemed like it would be for just me.  Then I went to AWP in Denver two years ago and attended a panel with Beth Ann Fennelly and she blew that idea right out of the water. Her book Tender Hooks is an incredible "mama book"--rich, articulate, funny, smart--all the things we'd want in a good book of poetry.  And she was published by Norton!

Seeing her book, and listening to her talk, gave me two wake-up calls.  First, writing about birth and children is not off the page.  Of course we've seen so many terrible "baby poems" out there, but nothing is off limits when it comes to writing.  And giving birth--being present at one of the two most fundamental moments of human existence--is a heavy weight poetry topic.  Amen!  And second, it taught me to stop doubting myself.  I learned this lesson once before (actually, at the AWP conference in Vancouver)--to not doubt subject matter (then it was writing about faith) and this was a good reminder again, to simply trust my instincts.  That doesn't mean any of this will get published, or turn into a book, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't do it.

And right now, a ratty white notebook is sitting in my desk drawer with the very first outlines of a book in it.  Feels pretty great.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hanging with Peggy

Peggy Shumaker came to town this week and I was lucky enough to have dinner with her, see her read, and then have her come to class.  She is the most generous poet I've ever met--it's amazing how giving she is to everyone around her.

I especially enjoyed her talk with my class.  My class (which is excellent) asked really probing, deep questions and she answered them all beautifully.  She really gave me some food for thought.  One thing she said is that she never cuts from a poem in early drafts--she just adds.  She argued that if we cut too soon, we may lose possibilities, and that we need to let those sit for a while.  Let the poems get longer and longer and then pare back later.  It's an interesting idea.  I often cut pretty early--things I think sound awkward, or don't fit, or I just don't like.  I'm not sure I could write using this technique, but it did make me think about that magical early draft tunnel--how we get in it, how we stay in it.  This is the part of writing that's hard to articulate, and hard to teach.  I think each of us enters the tunnel in different ways and part of our growth as writers is to find the way we enter and then keep doing so.

This beginning of term has felt a little magical that way.  I normally have 2-3 weeks at the beginning of semesters before I get totally overwhelmed with papers and I write a lot of poems.  This term I've been able to go on longer than I usually do, thanks to having two workshops and only one comp class (my first time ever) and I'm finding I'm holding my breath--hoping to keep writing, hoping to keep in that magic zone.  I've been writing about one poem a day, and am more or less happy with what's happening.  I haven't read any of them again, as I need some space, need to let them sit for a while.  Peggy talked about that too--the long period in which we live with the poem. She said sometimes hers are years--she had one poem that she worked on for ten years (that shocked my students!).  I don't have any that long, but some are two or three years.  A student told me this week that he's never written more than two drafts of a poem or story.  That surprised me--I think I'd been assuming they were working on their drafts more than this.  It'll be interesting to do a post-Peggy discussion with them.

In the meantime, I'm going to bed so I can wake up at 4:00 and see if I can enter that tunnel one more time.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cover Photo & Twitter

Ok, I took two plunges this week!

I finally joined Twitter. I've been sort of avoiding it, since FB pretty well fulfills all my social media needs (and sucks up so much of my time). But Tidal Echoes went on Twitter, and after hearing so much about it at writing conferences, I decided I better dig in. So far it's been a little anticlimactic, but maybe it will get more fun as I find folks to follow, and get followed (If anyone wants to connect: EmilydWall) . I did find John Straley right away, which was fun. He's posting haiku on his. He's so fab.

And, Sioban and I finally decided on an image! I'm so excited, and relieved. It was a surprisingly complex process--but so cool too. And I really like this photo. Now I'm sitting on pins and needles waiting to see the designed cover. Can't wait!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Poem Tingle

In class this week I assigned my students an in-class poem based on a poem by Mary Oliver ("Gethsemane"). The assignment was to frame a poem with a large religious, cultural, or historical backdrop (most of the students did 9-11) and then choose one small object and begin the poem there.

I usually don't write in class, as I want to be available to students to answer questions, look over drafts, etc. but the all seemed deeply engaged, so I decided to give it a whirl and I was delighted with what I came up with. I normally can't write poems in the middle of the day, much less in class which always has its own pressures and challenges and keeps my critical brain fully engaged. But somehow, it just worked this time. I wrote about Mary's birth experience in having Jesus and focused mostly on the labor itself. I'm not sure where the poem will end up, but it gave me a great idea for my next collection of poems, and a major structural element of them, so I've had that totally great happy writer tingle for the last two days. Has anyone else had that experience--that you've done something you love, or had a breakthrough--and then you walk around for a few days feeling like you're maybe getting it a little bit right? It's like this fabulous drug and I think it's one of the reasons I (and I suspect other writers) do this. Feel pretty good.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Reading Annie

I bought Annie Lamott's book Bird by Bird when I was at the conference and I'm loving it. It's so different from other "how to write" books I've read and flipped through. Some of those seem great, but many of them seem to exist to support the writer, more than anything else.

In true Lamott style, this one is crazy, disorganized, and totally funny. She doesn't talk technique so much (although that's there) as she does about the difficulty of being a writer--the psychological backwash of the whole thing. She has a terrific metaphor in there--that her mind is like a bad neighborhood that she tries not to go into alone at night. So perfect. She deals a lot with insecurities, jealousy, and the "critical brain" that keeps us from writing. It's amazing how much of myself I recognize in this book--especially these days as I begin a new project.

I think maybe the most fun I've had as a writer is finishing up the last book. At some point I suddenly realized I was over the crest and I had an actual book, and the rest was organizing, polishing, adding a poem here and there--that was such satisfying, relaxing work. Now I'm back at the bottom again, beginning the climb. That's fun too, but stressful of course. Every time I write a poem I have the whole "is this even going to work? Everyone's done this before, etc. etc." stuff going through my head. The bad neighborhood I've wandered into. It takes a surprising amount of emotional energy to stay out of that neighborhood and the crack dealers who want to suck me in.

I have started my early morning routine again--getting up at 4:30 and writing. I wrote 4 new poems this week. And now I need to follow Lamott's advice, and be gentle with myself, be happy about progress, in any form. It's 4 poems (regardless of how good or bad they are) that didn't exist in the world before this week. And that's sunny sidewalks and a Starbucks up ahead. That's the neighborhood I want to spend my day in.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Cover Design

It's been a long time since I've been on...I know. I'm making yet another resolve to keep up with this blog! I attended the Willamette Writer's Conference a few weeks ago and learned all about the new publishing buzzword--platforms. The big houses now want to see a writer have a platform and to be managing it well. For those of you, like me, who weren't in the know: a platform is the entire marketing package of the writer--his/her Facebook presence (and number of friends), the blog, twitter account, website, etc. It's pretty interesting, actually. Obviously social media is a great way to market a book.

Which brings me to my best news--the book is done! I finished it a few days before Lucy was born and sent it off to Jessie at Salmon. We are still on track for the book to be printed in January, and launched at the AWP Conference in Chicago in March. I'm pretty excited. Ecstatic, actually. I can't believe this project is finally getting bound and glued!

So now we're doing the fun stuff like working on the cover and gathering blurbs. I was really lucky and got blurbs from Simmons Buntin, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and Peggy Shumaker. They were all really generous with their comments.

The cover is proving to be way tougher than I had imagined, though. Siobhan at Salmon asked me to think about cover art, and that's been really interesting, and really complex. I started reading online articles about poetry book covers, and pulling all my poetry books off the shelf to look at them. Then I spent about 4 months surfing. I have a new-found respect for graphic designers--this is really hard.

I have all these conflicting desires for the cover, which is not making it any easier. I want it to be simple and dramatic...but also emblematic of the book. And all images relating to the idea of liveaboard are not simple and dramatic...of course. It's a messy life. A real liveaboard boat does not look like our iconic vision of a sailboat--it's got power cords and piles of stuff on the dock and a bike lashed to the side, and maybe a kayak too. A part of me adores this and wants to embrace it...but I'm not sure it would make for a particularly beautiful book cover. So...I've been pretty stuck.

Last week Corey went out in the rain with our point-and-shoot wrapped in a sandwich baggie and took a bunch of photos for me. None of them were exactly right, but they did give me a brainstorm about the image I want--a bike on a dock seemed perfect. So then I spent all week surfing for that image, but couldn't find it. I must have looked at a thousand bike pictures and dock pictures and boat pictures, but couldn't find the one I wanted (but got sidetracked with a lot of really weird photos--the world is such a weird place). Thankfully, finally, another bolt of lightening hit me and I emailed our reference librarians on campus and within minutes my in-box was flooded with the sort of fantastic images I had been looking for. A shout out here to all reference librarians!

Anyway, today I narrowed those down to about 5 and sent them off to Siobhan, so we'll see what she thinks. Like working on a poem, I feel both anxious and exhilarated, both at once.

Here's my current favorite--let me know what you think.