Tag: writing

A couple days ago I finished reading a novel that I’d been eager to get my hands on and had heard a lot of raving about on Twitter and whatnot. I’m trying to stretch beyond poetry writing and understand what makes fiction tick, so I’m reading more novels.

This particular book threw me for a loop. The first half was beautifully paced and threaded together. I was enjoying it as a reader and taking notes as a writer. But then, in a matter of about 10 pages (in a 300-ish page book), the climax arrived, was delivered via hasty dialogue, and dissolved without any real revelations or conclusions.

My first reaction was, So what? And that was quickly followed by, Wait, this counts? This counts as a finished book?

This tends to be my struggle with literary fiction. Poetry – and story for that matter – doesn’t have to resolve itself or present neat conclusions, but I do feel that strong writing has a revelatory quality. While literary fiction is often symbolic, that doesn’t always come together as meaningful, satisfying revelation.

Carl was next to me as I sighed through the last few frustrating pages of the book. When I explained myself, he offered his own revelation:

Every book a writer reads brings the target closer.

Before I read this book, I was sure this author must have some magical quality, some secret knowledge of fiction that must be an ocean away from me. Reading the reviews and blurbs certainly gave me that impression. This is where fiction always intimidates me.

But Carl is right — despite the disappointment in the end, when I looked up from reading the book, I saw a target instead of a vast ocean with no shoreline in sight. I saw a place to aim.

It’s always said that writers should read, read, read. And that is true, true, true. But the image of bringing the target closer is one that helps me a lot. I wonder how many books I need to read before I can push the arrow in the target like a pin?

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Last night I had a dream that Harper Lee was in love with Ernest Hemingway, but he was not reciprocating. Harper Lee was losing it to Truman Capote over the situation… and Truman Capote appeared as a woman in the dream. Most odd was that he was fumbling with an armful of arrows. And I remember thinking how upset Ernest Hemingway was going to be when he discovered Truman Capote being so careless with his arrows. 

I never dream about writers. I admit some envy of the writers who do get regular visits from other writers. (Kelli Russell Agodon comes to mind… I’d love a whole blog devoted to collecting dream encounters with writers! Imagine the bizarre wisdom we could uncover.) 

So it was a nice change to see writers in my dream, although none of them were talking to me. None of them had anything profound to say in general. But it was nice to be in the company of writers, at least in sleep. (And the idea of Harper Lee falling for Ernest Hemingway was especially funny once I woke up.)

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Well, National Poetry Month rocked — I did a few readings, participated in the first Grand Rapids’ Poets Conference, met some new poets, and was invited to share some of my work on WYCE’s Electric Poetry (will post the link when it’s archived online). Big steps for a poet who spent the last six or seven years writing mostly in secret. And in all the hubbub, I forgot to announce winners for the poetry giveaway! Eep! Sorry for the delay, and many thanks to all who entered. Here are the winners at long last, and I will also email you for more details:

And in other fun poetry news, I found out that two of my poems have been accepted to be published in the next issue of Big Scream, which is published by David Cope. It is only the third time that some of my work will show up in print out in the wild, and it gives me another vote of confidence to keep pressing on. Although I admit that I have returned to some of my pre-Poetry Month hermit tendencies, but you know, small steps.

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I’m excited to share that I’m one of 10 poets who will read as part of Poetry on Demand at the Grand Rapids Art Museum on April 6. I’m participating in part because I didn’t take enough time to talk myself out of it — I’ve wanted a challenge to put myself out there more with my poetry, and this opportunity fits in many ways. 

The event itself is unique and more intimate than a typical poetry reading. Each poet will write a new poem that engages with a piece in the GRAM’s new Rauschenberg exhibit (hence an ekphrastic poem, for those who don’t know, is a poem that responds to art). At the event, the poet will stand near the piece they chose, and attendees will approach and ask to hear the poem. So, the event format alone is a good challenge — it’s humbling when people take time out for a poetry reading, but to share poetry in such a direct way will be especially meaningful (hopefully for everyone involved, not just the poets).

And then of course there is the issue of creating a new poem, in response to someone else’s inspired piece of work, and revealing that poem within a matter of weeks. The challenge here does not need much explanation. Especially if you know that I am a happily patient and intentional editor. This will be good practice for me in just “shipping” a poem (a concept worth borrowing from my entrepreneur side). 

The piece I chose is Blue Line Swinger. I have a longstanding attraction to dichotomy (it was the bread and butter of my English degree) and curiosity about the relationship between parallel or seemingly disconnected things, so the line running through the piece was pretty seductive to me. I want to know why it’s there, what it means, how it creates worlds on either side, and so on. And with the reading I’ve done on Rauschenberg, I’ve gathered that he had a thing for chance and serendipity, which only further spurs my interest in the line. 

I don’t want to say much more than that, because over-explaining poems is bad juju — especially when they aren’t even fully written. 

So far a handful of lines have come to me. I thought I’d take cues from Rauschenberg and separate them onto individual index cards to mix them up, similar to his Synapsis Shuffle. The only thing this has shown me so far is that I’m stuck on certain lines going a certain way — to the detriment to the flow of the rest of the poem.

So I’m backing off for today. The poem is still at work in the back of my brain, but the more my conscious hands touch it, the more stubborn I become about certain parts. Here’s to chance and the possibility of more lines presenting themselves as the poem rolls around. 

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I confess that I had written a different confession. But then I began to prepare it for this blog and realized it was too heavy and too squared at the edges. So I started over.

I confess that Christmas is a big deal in my family. 
Much of Stoddard family lore is rooted in Christmas traditions. For instance, ever since my grandparents were newlyweds, the family has gone to a tree farm and cut down our Christmas trees together. It’s a rite of passage for newcomers and a sacred thing for old-timers. Every year involves an hour or two of searching for the perfect tree — which in my case usually involves finding the tallest and fattest one I can reasonably stuff in our living room. 

I confess that death made Christmas a bigger deal. 
My grandma died on Christmas morning eight years ago. I confess that I watch for the collision of opposing and unlikely experiences, because I like to see the tension that inevitably connects them. 2003 was full of these collisions: Christmas, my grandma’s death, and parts of my first wedding all met up.

Eight years later, I still unravel these pieces and find myself looking at the experience in new ways. There are parts I love even if they’re not memories I can really share anymore, like searching for my wedding dress and buying it off the rack, so I could show it to Grandma. There are parts that are still surprisingly painful. It feels like I’ll always cry when I hear Silent Night, which my family sang to her in a large circle at the funeral home. It’s not the missing her that’s hard when I hear it. It’s remembering what it felt like to see everyone I love in one room, singing together and grieving for the same person while feeling the loss in their own way, with their own stories attached to her. Like a chorus of histories.

I confess that Christmas changes, or I change within it. 
This Christmas seemed to follow the tune of the year: transition, transition, transition. Some of it was out of necessity — with the first grandchild/nephew born on December 10, some traditions (like decorating the family tree together) had to take a backseat. Christmas day itself was pretty quiet, as we had gone to Carl’s family on Friday and done our Stoddard get-together on Christmas Eve. Late on Christmas day, it struck me that Carl and I should have prepared our own rituals for the day. We’ve grown so accustomed to the larger family traditions dictating our holiday time that I realized we have hardly any traditions as our own little family. 

I confess that I believe two people can be a whole family. 
And this is the transition I sensed — the need to acknowledge Carl and me as our own family, the opportunity to shape the holidays in our own way. I caught myself living in someone else’s framework: when you have kids, then you’re a “family,” and then you create traditions. It’s not a model I subscribe to intentionally, but it’s an easy one to fall into, especially in a family-focused place like West Michigan. There is an odd “When we have a family…” dynamic that not only makes bad assumptions about what a family is, but also can put a child-free couple’s (or single person’s) life on hold. I confess that I see this framework in action, and I am opting out of it. 

I confess that I will be a stronger writer in 2012, thanks to Carl’s amazing gift.

That, my friends, is an invitation to the Poets on the Coast writing retreat with Kelli Russell Agodon and Susan Rich, two poets I have followed for awhile and a retreat I wanted to attend when it was launched last year. I have been desperate to connect with like-minded people to push my writing forward. I have tried a couple different online experiences, the most recent of which was a technological blunder (just say no to Adobe Connect) that only pointed out the hard fact: my writing will only go so far in isolation. I felt positively restless, almost angry, after that experience, like a boat that keeps being denied a place to dock. 

This gift is a huge investment in the de-isolation of my writing. Not only will I get to spend three days working with two accomplished poets, I’ll travel to Portland, Oregon and then drive a couple hours to this fantastic, literary-themed hotel in Newport, where I’ll hopefully make some West Coast writing friends. It’s a triple threat of creativity: a new place, new people, and guidance to create new poems. Yes, yes, yes. 

I’m so excited about this opportunity and beyond grateful to Carl. Next year already feels more productive on the writing front knowing that this retreat is waiting for me.  (And I confess that I would not mind if discovering a writing retreat in my stocking became one of our new Christmas traditions.)

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1. Make the perfect cup of cocoa in a mug that sets the mood for a creative evening. (See this important piece of writing if you don’t know why such a mug exists.)

2. Enjoy said cocoa while reading in front of the fireplace. Watch Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards and feel incredibly grateful for the language and minds of poets, who carve out space we might not otherwise find. 

3. To continue your pre-game stretch, write in a journal, preferably one that was personally selected with great care after nearly an hour of browsing at a local bookstore and that happens to be in your favorite color (green is a suggested favorite color, in case you need one). 

4. Take up your mug on its suggestion and proceed to write like a motherfucker, polishing up a few earlier drafts of poems, generating some new ideas, and all the while celebrating that the week is young and you have already done something to create within it.

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I picked up a subscription to 32 Poems earlier this year and finally had the chance to spend time with the latest issue tonight. As the name suggests, there are 32 poems in each issue, with a straightforward presentation. Of those 32, I marked five for re-reading and deeper processing (heavy emphasis on processing, as my notes below are not meant to be “reviews” by any stretch):

  • Against Emptiness, by James Arthur. Something is sticky about this poem. As in I keep coming back to it, but I’m not entirely sure why. I think it may have something to do with the dichotomy of air/uncertainty/emptiness and definition/certainty/purposefulness. Or maybe it’s something about meaning and how we intend, or embed, it in the world. I don’t know.
  • Carbon, by Bruce Bond. I’ve been playing around with carbon dating in one of my poems, so I was interested in how Bond used the language. Beyond that, I’m wondering what felt incomplete about this poem for me. Something about the last stanza felt out of place, like the poem shifted its perspective — from meditative to almost instructive. 
  • Words for Words, by Taije Silverman. I’d like to keep unpacking this. I’m wondering about the specific word choices of the speaker, and if there are any consistent parallels in which word is exchanged for another. They all add up to the sort of perfectly anxious final thought: “I want to dig up streets.”
  • After the End, by Ashley Anna McHugh. Something about the voice in the poem makes me want to return and listen more. 
  • On Saturn the Sky is Blue, by Sarah Lindsay. I’m attracted to anything that borrows language from the mechanics of the universe, and there are some beautiful images here, such as: …watch a thunderstorm, thirty miles tall, / walking on stilts of lightning.

Something I’ve been wondering about, which resurfaced as I read 32 Poems, is the challenge of perspective and voice. I’ve been trying to move away from writing so much in first person, if only to use that as a constraint to spark new ideas.

I’ve been thinking about the self-consciousness of first person. When is it contributing to a narrative and when does it start to feel like a claustrophobic self-portrait? With some of the poems I’ve read recently and in some of my own work, I’m beginning to feel as though holding space for “I” and “me” gets in the way of the work the poem really needs to do. Poems weighted heavily in first person have started to feel itchy to me. 

I’m not entirely sure how to resolve this, because as I noted with “Carbon” above, other perspectives can be slippery slopes to tones or styles that may not be intended. In one stanza, the tone can shift from meditative to pedantic, from inclusive to authoritative. This seems to be an easier slip when we leave the realm of the self (I, me) and must project a bit more to get to the perspectives of others (you, we, us, them). 

Which then makes me wonder: Is excessive use of first person a bit of a crutch? I’m picturing it now like a yoga block. A steady place to put my hand while the rest of my body, or the poem as it were, plays around with other elements, such as language.

Ok, no conclusions here. But I had to capture that somewhere. I’m wondering if there is a writing exercise in this… maybe slicing the same question or concept from multiple perspectives and seeing how empathy, authority and voice play out across the resulting poems. What is more powerful? What is more inclusive, accessible, compelling, etc.?

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