I have this quote from James. J. Gibson running through my brain, namely: “Events are perceivable but time is not.” Meaning we can only perceive time when something happens—our experience of time is event-dependent. And the way I feel the breath of AWP is both dizzying and terrifying. I am grateful, afraid, and absolutely small in the face of all this.
Or really, writing prompt from a poem you can’t stop reading, loving, admiring, and needing to engage. I’ve been challenging myself to write a poem in response to a poem that haunts me. It’s a challenge that frames my morning and ruins my placid coffee-guzzling routine.
I learn so much from the prompts and possibilities posted by fellow writers, so I’m going to share this Wait/Don’t Wait experiment in full knowledge that nothing I write in a morning compares with Galway Kinnell’s poems. This statement is both particular and general in its scope. This poem will never be submitted, published, collected, or read. It is a poem for the compost. It is critical to produce a steady stream of poems one is willing to bury. A poet’s task is to feed the flowers, which includes grinding old bones into soil.
Because I love Galway Kinnell’s “Wait”—from the way he touched depression to the way he wove a melody to free it. Kinnell wrote this poem for a student who wanted to die after a love relationship went wrong. Because it is one of my favorite poems and yet—I feel a hollow space in its promise, a sort of positivity that promises we will learn from the suffering of life. I’m not sure I believe this anymore. I’m not sure I need to believe this in order to love living—or to bear the implacable parts.
The Rub: Subvert Your Idol
Pick a poem that you adore, a poem by a famous poet, a poet you admire and emulate. You should have a fear of profaning their poems. This fear is important—it’s where the poem gets its energy.
Start by playing with the title, reading it, feeling its relationship to what the poet wants from the poem. Then subvert it. Flip it. And write into what happens.
(My example in response to Kinnell’s “Wait” is below.)
It’s worth watching the poet read this beautiful poem aloud—because watching adds layers to listening, and layers thicken the bed, broaden the available brushstrokes.
And what’s funny to me about this poem is I went in thinking I wanted to argue with Kinnell about whether we “recover” from broken hearts in the context of romantic love. As I wrote into the titular subversion, I discovered my mother—and how I needed to think about love and loss in general, how the intensity of love can attach to unromantic relationships, including parental ones.
The point of this post—the point of my daily subversions—is to schedule time for failure. To slot in a space where I write to fail, and then feel through that failure to new subjects. So I wrote the poem above (which is compost) and then discovered the poem I needed to write (which is not compost and not shared here but hopefully appears somewhere someday, ptuie ptuie).
In this way, writing “Don’t Wait” led me to a tension that I probe in a poem I do not plan to compost. But I’m not sure I would have resolved to write into the uncertainty of this space if I hadn’t first discovered its parameters through this writing exercise.
And that, friends, is the risk I need to bring to the page. Alongside the reminder that, if we are writing, then we are producing reams of nonsense alongside a few moonflower vines. And producing those reams is a good thing. A shameless thing. A facet of practice and commitment. Don’t wait.
I taught the most AMAZING group of writers this past weekend in an online weekend workshop hosted by Bending Genres. I really can’t recommend these humans enough—and I encourage fellow writers to look at Jonathan Cardew’s forthcoming workshop on character as well as Sara Lippman’s.
On that note—and partly as a bookmark for myself as I share and study prose poetry—these prose poems have influenced the permission I give myself in understanding (and bending) the form.
"32 Views from the Hammock" by Lance Larsen (Kenyon Review): for list poem
3 prose poems by David Shumate (Mad Dog Blues blog)
""by Yoel Hoffman (Tikkun)
"A Land Governed By Unkindness Reaps No Kindness" by Terrance Hayes (McSweeney's)
"Among the Prophets" by Essy Stone (New Yorker): for language
"Childhood" by Brenda Hillman (Kenyon Review Online): for an "essay in rhyme"
"from Curriculum Vitae" by Yoel Hoffman (Poetry)
"Describe the Situation in Specific Detail" by Emma Bolden (So To Speak): for great use of conceit
"Domestic" by Jenn Givhan (Adroit Journal): for interesting use of white space
"Eventide" by Ray Rasmussen (OJAL): for an example of the haibun form
"Final For" by Ron Silliman (Double Room): for example of long prose poem that inches close to flash
"He Said Discipline Is the Highest Form of Love" by Beckian Fritz Goldberg (Blackbird)
"How to Sit In A Cafe" by David Shumate. From High Water Mark (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2004). A prose instruction poem that uses directions to describe feelings in a backward manner-- what you wear when you feel X, how you look, etc.
"In A Sunday Kitchen" by Dina Relles (Pidgeonholes)
"Information" by David Ignatow (New Yorker): for factoid prose poems
“Instructions for Banishment” by John Sibley Williams (Figure 1)
“Minotaur // Dylan Roof” by John Sibley Williams (Figure 1)
"Past Immaculate" by Beckian Fritz Goldberg (Blackbird)
"Prayer for What I Do Not Want" by Amorak Huey (Third Point Press)
“Repast and future” by Bob Hicok (Blip Magazine)
"Stereo" by Ann Waldman (Poetry): for use of parataxis
"Subtraction" by Maxine Chernoff (KYSO Flash)
"Teaching A Child the Art of Confession" by David Shumate. From High Water Mark (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2004). A prose instruction poem that starts with what not to do and frames it in the negative admonitive voice.
"The Drag Queen Inside Me" by Denise Duhamel (Web del Sol)
"The Fire Cycle" by Zachary Schomberg (Poetry)
"the other word for thesaurus" by Maurice Kilwein Guevara (Guide to Prose Poetry, Rose Metal Press.)
"The Problem with Sappho" by Charles Rafferty (New Yorker)
"The Sound" by Maxine Chernoff (Jacket):for a dialogue between lovers about the sound of an orgasm
"The Tale-less Hoffman" by James Wallenstein (Tikkun)
"from Whereas" by Layli Long Solider (Poetry): for its amazing and innovative form and the spell it casts
"Year of the Dig" by Danielle Mitchell (Cease, Cows): for use of the aleatory voice in prose poems
A few years ago, Mount Analogue (a small press in Seattle) ran a submissions call for political pamphlets. My brain was one big list of events, marches, protests, direct actions, and possible pamphlets. I was thrilled when MA decided to publish this precious little fellow named dicktat (which you can download for free below).
The title was a word that came to mind which described the Trump POTUS scenario, namely the etat of dick. Or the dick-state. Or the dicktatertot.
I’m grateful to Mount Analogue and Paper Press Punch for producing political pamphlets in a historical tradition that reaches into what is best about the printing press, namely, its use as a engine for dissent. And I’d love to learn more about how to support these efforts locally in Birmingham, Alabama.
For more from Mount Analogue, see their Instagram at @themountanalogue.
In response to a poem that unsettled me.
Yesterday, I kept quiet
as a mouse inched
careful pink claws across
our kitchen floor.
I did not speak
or say Grand Canyon things
that forced doors open
into postcards. I left
gluttons of the grotesque
to the business of making noise,
And as the mouse came so close
to my toe, I did not lay
her small wonder at the hem
of a G-d or a nation.
Instead, I watched the fur
on her flanks pulse fast.
And sped my breath
to meet the terror
of the tiniest.
The quote above comes from one of my favorite writer self-soothing blankets, namely, “Outlaw Heart” by Jayne Anne Phillips. I’m starting there because it cleans the room and returns me to the self who values writing more than having a clean house.
Since I’ve been working on a large batch of CNF lately—and Phillips is so helpful in that space of fear and concern— I thought I’d share other essays and resources that I’ve found to be helpful.
Starting with notebooks. And why to keep them.
Annie Dillard, “Write Till You Drop” (New York Times)
Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook” (PDF)
Susan Sontag, “On Style” (PDF)
Moving into structure and forms—how to fashion the best vehicle for the piece.
Ander Monson, “The Designed Essay: Design As Essay” (PDF)
Donald Barthelme, “Not Knowing” (PDF)
E. v. de Cleyre,” Morphology of the Essay” (Ploughshares blog)
E. v. de Cleyre, “Begin Again: On Essays in Nonfiction” (Ploughshares blog)
Erika Anderson, “I Craft, Therefore I Am: Creating a Persona Through Syntax and Style” (Hunger Mountain)
Jennifer Gravley, “White Space: An Annotation” (Brevity)
John Proctor, “7 Things I Learned From Reading 15 List Essays” (Numero Cinq)
Krys Malcolm Belk, “On ‘First Seen in Print in 1987, According to Merriam Webster’” (Black Warrior Review)
Linnie Green, “In the Mines: A Craft Essay on Creative Nonfiction” (Cleaver Magazine)
Q. Lindsey Barrett, “7 Ways to Seduce Your Reader” (Hunger Mountain)
Then voice and various voice-related techniques..
Gwendolyn Edward, “Beyond Perhapsing: “Split-Toning Techniques for Speculation in Nonfiction” (Brevity)
Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” (Harper’s)
Karen Sabine, “8 Variations on the Idea of a Sentence” (Brevity)
Kurt Vonnegut, “How to Write With Style” (PDF)
Lisa Knopp, “Perhapsing: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction” (Brevity)
Michael Downs, “Me, Myself, I: Idiosyncrasy and Structure in Nonfiction” (Triquarterly)
Michael Noll, “Apply the (Perhaps) Most Famous Fiction Exercise of All Times to Your Essays”(Brevity Nonfiction Blog)
Phillip Lopate, “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (The Fourth Genre)
Robert Vivian, “The Essay As An Open Field” (Numero Cinq)
Susan Hall, “Now and Then: The Binary Dimension of the Authorial Voice in Memoir” (Numero Cinq)
Finally, ways to bring yourself to the page without losing it. The complex tangles of saying what you mean without promising you will mean it forever.
In writing witness, how to convey trauma without creating a spectacle? To present violence without repugnance or reaction? What do we owe the reader? How is this balanced against what we owe ourselves and loved ones?
Ele Pawelski, “Found in Translation: How My Memoir of Life Overseas Turned Into a Novella” (Cleaver)
Francine Prose and Leslie Jamison, “Is It OK to Mine Real Relationships for Literary Material?” (New York Times)
Gina Iron, “Writing First-Personal Journalism About Trauma” (Hunger Mountain)
Joan Didion, “Why I Write”
Laura Rose-Russell, “There’s a Reason They Call it Show AND Tell: How to Reveal Thoughts, Emotions, and Motivations Without Sentimentality” (Numero Cinq)
Leslie Lindsay, “Is Memoir Automatically Therapeutic? A Craft Essay on Writing About Mental Health” (Cleaver Magazine)
Liz Stephens, “Creative Lies I Tell My Nonfiction Students” (Cleaver Magazine)
Meghan Culhaine Galbraith, “Child’s Play: How Creative Play Helped Unlock My Nonfiction Writing” (Cleaver Magazine)
Nina Puro, “Mary Karr Names Names” (The Fix)
Pam Houston, “Corn Maze” (Hunger Mountain)
Sherry Simpson, “Tiny Masters: An Artful Trick to Writing Personal Essays” (Brevity: The Craft Blog)
And a few good essays to read when you need inspiration:
Andrea Jarrell, “A Measure of Desire” (New York Times)
Beverly Donofrio, “Meanness” (Brevity)
Cheryl Strayed, “Write Like a Motherfucker” (The Rumpus)
George Orwell, “Why I Write” (PDF)
Joy Williams, “Uncanny the Singing That Comes from Certain Husks” (PDF)
Melissa Febos, “Intrusions” (Tin House)
Michelle Zauner, “Crying in H Mart” (New Yorker)
Sandra Felice Robinson, “The B Side of Blackness” (Believer)
Some poems have topics that defy the usual forms. Elisabeth Weiss chose to turn her nine-part poem about memory and mental illness into a hybrid triptych form titled, appropriately, “The Anna Fragments”. I think this is a fabulous example of letting the subject find its form. The poem becomes a sort of historical dialogue between medical records, public opinion, private experience, and public health policy that situates it in American time and place. The ideological undertones of mental health policy are touched in a way that doesn’t demand resolution.
Weiss explains how the poem found its shape:
'The Anna Fragments' began as a nine-part poem. It deals with how my grandmother’s life was shaped by her times. I added the preface as sidebar commentary and then added further definitions and explanations to enlarge and expand her story. The text resembles a page of the Talmud, which is how learned rabbis argued texts across centuries. Last summer at the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York, I completed the narrative by extending it to women in the following two generations. The combination of research, poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction mirrors Anna’s schizophrenic world, but I also hope it gives voice, in many different ways, to a woman who was silenced.
Permitting wikipedia entries to speak to journal entries and old medical archives adds a circularity to this poem, an appropriate motion in narratives that remain elusive and surreal. By noting which records are absent (for example, records for Anna don’t exist from 1931 to 1936), the poet erases as she describes and depicts.
I really appreciate this form as a vehicle for depicting the erasure of a medicalized body, and the ways in which medical institutions replace individual personhood when it comes to narrative. The questions about agency and existence are left open for us to mull. There’s more to learn from Weiss at her website.
In “New Neighbors,” a creative nonfiction published in Subtropics, Ryan Ruff Smith uses footnotes to enrich the authorial perspective speaking from within a relationship.
Here’s footnote 4, for example:
4. David, the editor of Subtropics, suggested that perhaps I am being a bit too hard on myself here, in a way that is symptomatic of the very tendency to be hard on myself that I diagnosed earlier, and kindly suggested that I cut the words “from a blinkered perspective.” This was a shrewd suggestion, and I’ve retained the phrase only for the purposes of this footnote.
And footnote 5 undercuts the veracity of the narrative itself:
5. This business of the night terrors is the one detail I’ve made up. So perhaps it’s not so much that I wasn’t allowed a villain as that I couldn’t abide one. Where no explanation exists, you’re sometimes
obliged to invent one, and this rings true enough for me.
David Leavitt asks him why he decided to use footnotes in this way. I’m going to quote Ryan’s response in full just to give a sense of how an improvisational tactic winds up playing an interesting and provocative role in an essay:
Is it innovative? At any rate, I had fun with them. The first one I put in was based on a comment RL made on an early draft of the manuscript, responding to my assertion that we were both very particular (that is, fussy) by suggesting that perhaps one of us was more particular than the other. It seemed to capture something of our relationship—our shared sense of humor, the nature of our repartee—that I hadn’t been able to capture through dialogue, so I wanted to put that in there. I wasn’t sure footnotes were right for the piece, and I thought that I would probably cut them later, as soon as someone told me it was a dumb idea, but as I started adding more, I realized that it was a way of highlighting one of the things the essay was about—the idea of constructing narratives, of the truth as something that needs to be edited, revised, and qualified in order to get right. Now that I think of it, the sense of self that I come to terms with in the essay, and that I’ve been trying to describe here, is itself defined, in part, by being open to revision.
The way in which the footnotes challenge the authority of the narrator only makes the narrator more reliable to me. I footnote so many of my thoughts and assertions…and I appreciate the way Smith uses this as a device to acknowledge multiple leavings of meaning in service of truth in the essay.
Anxiety is the epidemic but belonging is the silent hunger.
A photo takes good notes.
See photos above, taken with an iPhone camera.
Jot things down in jpeg.
Assume the ordinary world is asking you to read it.
If you have contact with any supernatural worlds, assume they also wish to be read.
Sensuality lacks a moral compass. A lie can be sweet as stealing apple lollipops, licking them fast, burning down evidence. A wedding can be an example of bright pink peony living too far forward way too fast. A sawmill can be part of hand that shouldn’t be exposed until later. An ambulance siren can be as innocent and reckless as summer kids careening across a street.
It is easy to dehumanize a person in less than a page. When I’m writing difficult characters, I think of something James Baldwin said in an interview: “Perhaps the turning point in one’s life is realizing that to be treated like a victim is not necessarily to become one.” Writing about victimhood does not require a victim. Write your characters the way they would want to be written.
Sometimes you come to that point in a short story where you can’t resist anymore. I remember watching the Alabama Symphony Orchestra perform Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scherazade, Op. 35” from our favorite seats in the choral balcony. The Tale of Prince Calendar. The hands of the harpist like wings loosed in a meadow. Becoming a wave. The kids look at me, querulous, wondering if they can dance, if they can allow themselves to do what the music begs. I say no with my mouth. Firmly. But my body says yes, oh yes you have nothing left to lose.
Czeslaw Milosz: "A flaw: awareness of being a child inside; i.e., a naively emotional creature constantly endangered by the coarse laughter of the grown-ups."
The way adults wear their disenchantment like dresses, the way they lay it down like a wool rug in the center of the room. At some point I imagine it took the tiniest fingers to weave those intricate textures that scratch the cheek.
I lay on the wool rug alone. Like my mother before me. I know we have all come from the dreams of small children. I stretch my arms to make angel imprints and stitch wings to the leaves.
Joyce Carol Oates reflects on the lure of the grotesque, the charm of the vampire as evidence that evil can be as seductive as it is repulsive—that it can render us not just victims but accomplices in its destruction. There is a sense of horror or dread bound up in the grotesque, a sense of perversion in which we can feel how something good begins rotting.
”Extenuating Circumstances”, my favorite short fiction by Oates, is deeply grotesque—and propelled forward by the reader’s dread. One way Oates manages this is by refusing to use question marks at the end of questions. This adds to eeriness—the conclusion and answer have been set in stone by action.
The story is structured as a legal apologia, with first person narrator confessing why she killed her child, and addressing it to the father. Each paragraph proceeds from “Because…” starting with “Because it was a mercy. Because God even in His cruelty will sometimes grant mercy.” It is a perfect piece.
On my desk, a line from Leonard Michaels’ notebooks: “The opposite of mystery is pornography.”
And the opposite of eros is mechanics. Are you writing the optics or the inhabitation? Be thoughtful and deliberate in your choice.
It's always sad when a writer winds up writing mechanistic sex unintentionally.
Almost as sad as finding yourself in the middle of it.
Mona Simpson: “I think day-to-day life changes loves. It can’t stay high, if you know what I mean. Little frictions develop. Did you ever notice the way people married a long time don’t believe each other?”
Oh gold-mine of little frictions…..
Triangulation in poetry is a strategy where writing builds itself on question of winning or losing, attaching certain elements of suspense, moving back and forth between characters without creating connective tissue. The movement--and expectation of movement--is part of the emotional tone. An aspect of what it feels to inhabit that moment.
Lucretius: "Nothing appears as it should in a world where nothing is certain. The only certain thing is the existence of a secret violence that makes everything uncertain."
The writer stays up late palpating the body for scars.
Sometimes poetry and fiction and nonfiction and music blur together and I feel like I’m enacting a harm by trying to separate them. Or to find a space for them on the binary. Maybe honoring genre requires us to offer it a spectrum rather than a check-box.
When the inability to write unsettles me, I sink into something published by Wave Books. Often Mary Ruefle or Renee Gladman.
There’s this wonderful section in Calamities where Gladman remembers the back she took the night before: “…if I was no longer going to write, as I had begin to worry that I wouldn’t, then I should at least write about not writing. And was so struck by the idea that I rose from the tub, dripping, to jot it down, which I was now doing. I was writing down the idea ‘I no longer wish to write’ by writing down that I was writing it down. I wanted a threshold to open that would also be like a question, something that asked me about my living in such a way that I could finally understand it.”
For some reason, this helps me sit down to write.
Iris Murdoch: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.” As writers, we work under constant threat of rejection and wreckage. I call it “wreckoning”, that sense that my writing will destroy all that I cherish and hold dear. And then there’s the human worry of failure—the fear of bad reviews, the friends who purchase but never mention the book, the way life goes on as if the book never happened, the fear of polluting intimate relationships by asking too much of one’s readers.
That feeling you’re missing something. What is the outlier? Where does the center not hold? After the short documentary film festival, we split a pitcher of cheap draft, talk about firefighting, Black Panthers, good rap, Talibans, Eastern plans, anything except the albino protagonist. A pitcher shared among Americans of every color still cannot ease the tension of race as we construct it. The box we build a box lacks a choice that acknowledges albinos.
To describe someone as “strange” is the greatest compliment in my arsenal of tiny love-tanks. Michael Martone is strange. I say this although I’ve only spoken to him twice (and very very briefly with kids tugging at my shirt). Martone knows how to estrange the ordinary—a superpower I covet.
Coveting is good.
I covet my neighbor’s wife (and every wife, for that matter, wives in general).
I also covet my the way my neighbor’s wife man-handles idioms.
My heart is dark with the pleasures of covetousness.
Things that drip into the writer’s mind while waiting in the carpool line. Egon Schiele's rendering of human bodies and empty cityspaces, the abandonment of realism in a world where reality is a form of propaganda. His unexpected, early death in the Spanish flu epidemic preceded by the death of his wife and child from same virus, the ravage of Bohemian Vienna but not yet Hitler. The writer lists her appends her influences to include: all interwar periods, all spans of time between one bomb and another, what bourgeois americans damn apart from themselves, conversations in 24-hour gyms, female bodies. She sits on the couch between Audre Lorde and Hannah Arendt with Schiele in her head. And Syria.
I spend most days waiting to write. I wait for the words like a character waits for her lover, the one whose voice carries the story.
Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding in order to please the guests. The writer turns water into wine to show how we are powerless in the face of temptation.
I write with loyalty to the things, places, and people I’ve loved. Not from nostalgia but out of respect to the mammal I was, the girl who loved them. I can love my husband and still write about loving an X because that girl is gone. Her disappearance should not be an excuse for erasure. I can love the girl while acknowledging the tree feels different. I’m talking about the sapling before the thickened trunk, the massive canopy, the curved hips of branches. I can’t discredit the yearning of the sapling while acknowledging myself as the tree. May these branches leave space for all the girls I’ve been, all the compost I’ve yet to be.
Sometimes it helps to follow Walker Percy’s suggestion and play the alien anthropologist to whom every gesture is a mystery and possible code. I park in the lot two streets down the mountain and watch my family move from window to window of supper. Preparations. A man and three kids crowding a bowl. Cozy if you can’t overhear the missing ingredients, the sugar lost to coffee.
In art, the bird’s eye view is one that foreshortens from above. Artist Egon Schiele made powerful use of the bird’s eye view to defamiliarize landscapes and towns. In his paintings and sketches, cities, streets, and trees are empty of human objects and flesh. The viewer is estranged from the view. The use of high, lofty viewpoints, fragmented motifs, simultaneous presentation of non-simultaneous states, depersonalization of motifs, and the effect of empty background deliberately removes us from the real and feel of it.
Sigmund Freud, 1915: "Our own death is indeed, unimaginable, and whenever we make the attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we really survive as spectators."
To survive towards death.
My death has been spectated one thousand ways now, all of them likely, all of them met with astonishment.
The first time you die is as surprising as the multiple others.
Turbulence on an airplane is a terrorist. The profanity of fear, its octane metal in the mouth, I am biting and biting the bullet. Bite down at take-off and then again when we land. I can't believe. I'm alive.
So many poems begin in astonishment at being alive.
But it would be silly to stop and grab my friend by the shoulders and shout “isn’t this unbelievable?”
It would be especially ridiculous to do this as often as the thought overtakes me.
The thing about paper is that always wants to know my astonishment.
Every scene needs the subtext of possible neon. I like to mull Steve Almond's critique of reality TV: It's about the careful construction of two central narratives: false actualization and authentic shame... it reflects our unrequited yearning for the authentic.
Americans are drowning in a cesspool of fake emotion, nearly all of it aimed at getting us to buy junk. — That’s either a great story or a boring sitcom.
More than fifty years ago, the Higgs field emerged as an omnipresent expanse of energy that explains why some theoretically-massless particles have mass. The boson was predicted to appear when a particle interacting with the Higgs field excites it. Since physicists could not directly observe the field itself, they looked to bosons for evidence of the field's existence. Nothing is finished.
Phenomenologically speaking, the swan has yet to dive and its white is soundless. I am fine. Not even wet. My ears ring with crickets and uninvited bullfrog events. A disjunct between two connected places— this grimy lake and the downtown four blocks away. One being the boson to a Higgs field that proves its existence but I am too lazy to discern which.
Again, this lake where most teens in my town get pregnant bears an invisible physical relationship the downtown clinic where they creep behind bodies to secure an abortion. To visit one is to feel potency of the other by implication.
To wake up in the morning, pack lunches, and thank the cosmos for Mary Gaitskill’s “The Agonized Face”.
This is an argument for the value of fascination. For the mundane and extravagant act of attention in shaping what the mind makes of the eye. Georgia O’Keefe was so fascinated by the evening star that she followed it into the wide sunset space in the desert. She said ten watercolors were made from that star. One star in the desert, holding her tight.
After George Sand's death, Ivan Turgenev wrote: “What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.”
There are so many stories in this, though not one leans into Hemingway’s “muscular writing.”
“Pain is not the only thing.” It’s not even the most interesting.
Susan Sontag, in her notebooks, 2/23/1970: “My idolatry: I’ve lusted after goodness. Wanting it here, now, absolutely, increasingly… I suspect now that lusting after the good isn’t what a good person really does.” Schopenhauer listed pain and boredom as the twin evils of life. What is the worst lust? What hunger lies beneath the heroin?
Grace Paley often reuses the same narrator. And begins in medias re. The power of her opening lines is such that it carries us straight through a story, straight into the scene, the kitchen, the room, the action of voices colliding, arguing, explaining. It is said that Paley stitched her stories together inch by inch, paragraph by paragraph, whenever time permitted. She also added scenes to stories that had been previously published, thus changing their tone and meaning. One can’t help feeling that Paley had a certain loyalty to these female characters—a loyalty so profound that she alienated readers or editors rather than the women in her kitchen. Each story is structured by rhythm of thought and conversation.
How fear of death—knowledge of it—cripples life.
A rock is not a pedestal but a possible murder weapon.
All things turn to their endings.
My mother’s fear of dying young and leaving us motherless. Like her mother left her by dying young. As if dying young is lifestyle choice.
The fear of losing family and safe ground—the fear that chased her to America, having nothing left to lose in her mother tongue. And nothing to gain except forgetting—that unique American freedom that sets up apart from history, apart from settled accounts.
At the local level, racial segregation was maintained by white women who wrote letters and lobbied local officials, censored textbooks, hosted essay contests for local schools, policed racial boundaries as administrators, and taught kids racial hierarchies that emphasized white over black as a natural order. No one forced them to do this.
You don’t have to force your characters to do things as long as you allow them to respond in a way appropriate to their socialization.
The alliance of white motherhood and white supremacist politics continues today. Iconic images of white supremacy privilege male images of violence, revenge, legislative power, or dominance. The assumption that women are maternal and progressive is a form of biological essentialism that blinds us to what women did then and what they do not. Think Roseanne, hen mother.
The “gardeners of white supremacy” tended Lost Cause mythologies, cotillions, fear of outsiders and United Nations, sowing the seeds of white supremacy for the future.
Some people will not be able to accept this truth unless they read it under the guise of “fiction.”
You can’t save the world but you write about a woman trying to save the world while destroying it.
Grace Paley, again. Her stories hinge on a pattern of exchange and response that is more spatially-demanding than linear. You don’t have the sense of going anywhere but you feel very alive. The events and changes are situated within a mysterious relational fluidity in which the outcome is hard to predict. What changes is not so much the character as the relational space between characters. The re-negotiations of intimate space after love, children, war, and dinner.
All writing is political. There is no way to write without touching socialization. Even an article about a high school football game is political in that it presumes the existence of human bodies playing by rules that harm them in the hopes of being seen. Or respected. Or given power. Or just loved.
Learn how to tilt tone.
The Oliners interviewed 72 German bystanders to arrive at a better understanding of their reasons for not acting or speaking out against the Holocaust. Most were characterized by “constrictedness, by an eye that perceived most of the world beyond its own boundaries as peripheral. More concerned with themselves and their own needs, they were less conscious of others and less concerned with them.” Only a small minority of bystanders were true ethno-centrists who didn’t like outsiders. Most bystanders were church-going Christians active in their faith communities.
Victoria J. Barnett called indifference “the leitmotif of the literature of the Holocaust.” The most common behavior we see during the Holocaust, whether by perpetrators, terrorized victims, or passive bystanders. Fatalism is its handmaiden.
From Teju Cole’s Open City: “Look, I know this type, she said, these young men who go around as if the world is an offense to them. It is dangerous. For people to feel that they alone have suffered, it is very dangerous…. If you live as long as I do, you will see that there is an endless variety of difficulties in the world… if you’re too loyal to your own suffering, you forget that others suffer too.”
To write from outside the outrage of personal suffering and into the vulnerability.
I can’t envy belonging—I’m too grateful for the perspective nonbelonging imposes on the lonely, left-out mind. To be outside the circles, disinvited, negligible—how else to witness the absurdity of group dynamics, the lies we tell in order to sneak into a stadium?
It would be easier if I could swaddle myself in cynicism or a knowing materialism. But I believe too much in beauty and passion—I’m too riveted by this life.
Humans change the meaning of words each day the sun rises a slightly different color. No liberalism stays fixed, no freedom is not another person’s encroachment. To call myself a “Democrat” is conservative, asserting a static construction of meaning to a category that cannot, by its nature, remain the same. What is my political position? I am firmly anti-totalitarian and anti-authoritarian, and this is grounded in a deep concern for human rights. As technology alters the nature of human rights, I can only commit to what I don’t believe we should tolerate. I can only commit to the “No.”
And what we want from Anne Frank is forgiveness, the cheap grace of hindsight, the blamelessness of looking back. An easy teleology which unites progressives and conservatives in their belief that history will not happen again.
I can’t agree.
I see no telos in life.
And I fight it in my short fiction.
I’m thinking love between brackets. Like it’s 2 am and still taking temperatures from the tongues of little mammals, the offspring of love getting sick, needing nurture. A story that demands foregrounding. Even kids become part of the stage set keeping lovers apart. And yet the memory of the face I fell involve with is edgy, dangerous, blurred as a police sketch. Jets bust open the sound barrier. Rain plinks into a metal plate in the fireplace. Parts of us cannot shut completely. A house with a mouse. And you—trying to find the entryway into our marriage. The way your eyes clench lists fists over me when time passes too fast.
Feminism’s collapse into the master’s tools, the overt militarism and violence, the strong sense of group belonging that makes it a crime not to Other. Not to emphasize the Otherness at the expense of the human. To manipulate fear and prejudice against these others upon which our identity is built. To pose in camos with a weapon of mass destruction. The role of my status as witness against xenophobia is not to claim fraternity with the brown bodies in deportation camps—not to pretend I know how it feels to be a slave or to be trafficked or to be desperate for acceptance. It is to speak not of my minor plights but to pass the mic to brutalized bodies—to show how skin color protects no one in the former Yugoslavia or Africa. The enemy is not solidarity and difference—the enemy is power and violence.
Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories blurred genre between fiction and memoir by necessity. In telling stories of life in Soviet prison camps, Shalamov switches point-of-view often; and many times, he does this to inhabit the POV of a dying prisoner. To tell the story of that person’s final minutes. There is something unspeakably brutal about death in the taiga, a place so cold that the buried bodies are preserved in permafrost, never rotting into the soil and being absorbed, never composting to serve as nourishment for future life.
The image of those frozen human statues is an ars poetica that carries us through the book, justifying the narrator’s detachment and lack of feeling.
No, it’s not a leitmotif. That’s not what I meant. The frozen bodies are an explanation for why he is writing, a key into Shalamov’s formal choices, and an expiation for the crimes of the survivor.
In 1938, Simone Weil suffered from a series of acute migraines. She began to recite George Herbert’s poem “Love” while sitting in a French chapel, trying to link the pain she was feeling to the passion of Christ. She felt Christ come down and take possession of her. She said it changed her life forever. She knew. But she also refused to be baptized, refused to become one of the chosen lest that position make it harder for her to help others. And so the writer guards her marginality, and the freedom and loneliness it secures. The assurance that she cannot rest easy in the comfort of belonging. She cannot earn a stake in not saying certain things out of fear those things will alienate her from others. She stays alien.
Maybe the urge to stay alien is a religious impulse.
The poets laureate of the Communist empire take their vacations in Florida now. It is wrong, they say, to offer false hope. It is a crime to give the desperate a choice they can’t make in good conscience. Desperation cannot make decisions. All the words we find to sanitize death still give chills when applied to insects. There is no kind extermination.
In search of lost silences. The silence after losing a fishing lure in the creek, knowing you can’t fish anymore but not yet knowing what that means for the rest of the day. How the day will be transformed by loss. The silence on a Greyhound when your seat-mate watches porn on his iPad. The silence of the moment before anesthesia sets in. The silence of a city street at 4:17 am. The silence after bad sex. The silence after good sex. The silence straining across a traditional family dinner. The silence of a monastery. The silence you choose to protect others. The silence on a porch with a close friend when neither felt the need to say anything. When silence was enough.
I don’t know why we think that dying is the time to say those things held deep in the dark. As if the immanence of death is not a continuous presence. I don’t know why we wait to write the revealing thing.
Ben Marcus says fiction has no formula—“you have to solve for x again, every time.”
I think of my kids, raising them, watching them defy the boxes I’ve built to protect them, boxes of purity, in a sense, boxes that preserve them from contamination. Marcus expresses the strongest appreciation for stories that do not parent, fiction that does not provide a box that relieves our anxiety. In a sense, the dread and complexity serve as a comfort, an unhidden gash. Let’s talk blood.
Let’s say I write a story about my mother, a formidable feminist whom I prefer to keep as a talisman of strength and irrepressible will. A story that makes her victorious is a story that ignores how traumatized she must have been to defect from Romania and leave her one-year-old daughter behind not knowing if she would ever see her again. How can I write a story that ignores the PTSD required to leave a one-year-old behind as she ran to the USA, with only a story and two hundred dollars and an equally reckless, desperate spouse? The 50 percent odds. The child she almost lost by never seeing again. The baby in hidden in her belly (my sister). The name she took from her mother who died of breast cancer three months before my birth. The middle name she legally appended to keep her mother close. To bring her here. Tell me what you taste of fear.
It’s important to remember that pathos is integral to the kleptocratic market economy and its literary frenulum. One shouldn’t shy away from the obvious.
A hesitation is not a pause but an attempt to reconsider longing, to revisit hope. In dialogue, a hesitation should be distinct from a pause—should be written with poignance. Deborah Levy says the point of writing is to tell the story of hesitation, or the ways in which fictional characters try to defeat a particular longing or long-held wish. The horrible long spaces between sobs which indicate the deepening of the sob.
The writer does not have the option of keeping their private life to themselves. E. B. White compared essay writing to taking off one’s pants without showing one’s genitals. Margaret Atwood admitted “You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer, an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river.” When my partner asked why reading was so terrifying, I told him that reading my own writings is like performing a striptease without the buffer of compartmentalization. With each word, one makes a choice that can held against you, a step in the direction of nakedness and raw vulnerability. As existential philosophers were quick to note, courage does not mean an absence of despair. Courage means an ability to move forward in spite of despair and dread.
Ralph Keyes talks about “that naked feeling”, how writers tend to feel all of the time. “Those who put their words on paper for public consumption live in fear that whoever reads their words will see right through them. At the very least, readers will discover what they themselves have suspected all along: that they’re faking it.”
The risk of candor is real. A candid writer risks being seen for their authentic sincere self and being deemed uninteresting. Isn’t it better to wear a mask? Keyes notes that “authors always feel in danger of being abandoned by loved ones.” And this fear leads to large pockets of silence which swell into regret or a sense of servitude, the feeling that one sacrificed truth to popularity and likableness.
The estrangement of an iceberg, it’s unfamiliar use of space altering the surroundings. A horizon pulls back from icebergs and a sky rises with no intermediary—no lines of compression behind them to mark the in between. I don’t know where death begins and life ends. For a girl who loves borders, this space of death is daunting. In making this map, I sever the ties between beholding a beholden. I think the act of writing, the cartography of bars and landscapes, is a middling guide at best, and sometimes, just this trash you are reading before you return to your own.
While we can describe the experience of realizing that we are wrong, it is impossible to describe any sort of feeling associated with simply being wrong, or with wrongness. When we are wrong, we are mostly oblivious to it. The problem of error-blindness means that error feels normal, and the falsehoods which we invest with belief are not visible. Since it’s impossible to feel wrong when wrongness is imperceptible, we conclude that we are right. And since our brains don’t file away a category of mistakes we made, each mistake emerges as a surprise and a shock, something we can’t take as evidence or use to create a rule about our tendency to make mistakes. In essence, each mistake is an anomaly.
Roger Rosenblatt observes that we “exist in the fold of human failing.” And the hunger for power that creates tension in a relationship. The tension engine.
We tend to overwrite rejected beliefs and build amnesia for our mistakes, which makes it difficult to a accept wrongness as part of the way in which our minds work, as part of the way we arrive at knowledge. Nothing happens easily. This is an argument for slow fiction.
We are torn between wisdom and schedules in which a woman’s plan for life leaves little flexibility or margin for error. Maturity, the ability to defer gratification and wait for an outcome, seems close to the planning and preparation of digital dating but the risk is absent. The absolute folly of love is set aside for the predictability of good companionship. By rendering each need instantaneous, the internet makes delayed gratification look too much like weakness. As if writing is always a doormat and never a glimpse of the sky.
The smocked bodies or the the bodice I failed to smock, the unburdened collar, the frayed meter of the footstep. My chronic restlessness and sinking posture. A tone but not a story.
I’m a fan of indirect dialogue because, in my experience, humans are rarely clear or eloquent about what they want but the fragile banality of actual conversation feels stilted or bumpy or faked on the page. It’s hard to write a real conversation without losing the reader.
The first line begins with what someone wants at the end, and action is how we get there. Usually the fixed desire is modified by movement across time and space, an accumulation of events and altering scenarios. You are not the same person at the end of a good story. At least, that’s the “good fiction” conceit.
But what if you are the same person?
What if you just agree to say different things and wear red jeans to church?
Maybe characters aren’t that different from human beings. Maybe they look like they’ve changed for the purpose of a special moment or a Thanksgiving dinner but they’re still Trump voters inside.
Broken beliefs, busted ideologies. A landscape of fallen statues and broken beliefs. That's how I see post-Soviet Russia--a space in which no ideologies stayed inspiring or possible.
Or maybe a workshop that promises too much?
A workshop that offers the solution to all your writing problems?
There’s something feeble about writing mental health challenges in a way that defines a character. Mental health can only describe us, not define us. Only for a moment and among a cornucopia of other traits and embodiments.
I know it's wrong to put a moral in the story... but is it wrong to twist the story's wrist until she cries "Moral!"?
In ongoing partnerships (as opposed to new relationships), sexual consent often hinges on interpreting emotional tone correctly. (Note: I admire those for whom the case is always a yes/no discussion, but I also acknowledge that some of us start to use other forms of language after years of yes/no together and I think nonverbal communication continues to play an important role for many decent mammals.)
After much disclaiming, I don’t know why consent leads me into thoughts about authenticity and appropriation, but emotional tone is somewhere in that fog. It’s hard for me to write from the perspective of a war veteran because that lack of experience makes my voice too brittle and artificial to carry the heavy parts. Maybe the only emotions I can authentically bring to the table are those I’ve experienced. This isn’t rocket science, but it feels like chaos theory when you’re desperate to write from the place of people you care about. Even though you can’t. Even though it may be best to sit down and think.
As writers, we can't speak for others if this involves replacing or erasing their voice. We can, however, speak with others and in dialogue with ourselves and social institutions--we can show support or affinity by honoring the distance between the witnessing voice and the embodied one.
Tone should reflect (and respect) the limits of engagement. Enter reticence.
I think reticence adds fuel to uncertainty, and uncertainty keeps the reader from getting too comfortable and missing the good parts.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a prose poetry workshop that you can attend without having to purchase a plane ticket or find child or pet care, you should register for this February weekend workshop I’m leading for Bending Genres. I promise there will so much to take home and so much to build with and play with and explore… It’s a generative workshop with plenty of time for feedback. And I can’t wait to be somewhere in the universe with you… writing and revising prose poetry.
Elizabeth McCracken helped me through the writing doldrums today with her essay, “I’m an Award-Winning Short Story Writer and I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Either”, in Electric Literature. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?
Apart from her prompts and reassurances, McCracken also linked to a wonderful craft essay by Allan Gurganus that covers the gamut from community gardens to historical complicity as well as the AIDS crisis. I sat outside my daughter’s ballet class laughing, holding my notebook close to my chest, that stupid smile of relief patched over my not-here-to-mom-chat face.
Published in a 1989 issue of Iowa Review, while Gurganus was taking a year off from teaching to write, ’ “Garden Sermon” (properly titled, “Garden Sermon: Being the History of a History, Notes from a Journal about How to Keep a Long Long Project Alive. Or: What I Did with My Summer Vacation”) is beautiful and encouraging. Of course you should read it. Why else would I leave a link?
A few excerpts:
“What starts a romance is rarely what sustains a marriage. My novel is called Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. I consider my relation to the oldest living confederate widow my life's longest monogamous connection. What starts a young writer is not what keeps a geezer coming back for more. You begin with the sound of one voice that goes forward into nowhere and, after years and trials enough, begins to come back with an echo, dividend.”
“We are often urged not to take things personally. A sales clerk yells at me and, shaken up by it, I tell a friend and my friend says back, "My God, you take everything so personally.” Maybe that belongs on the artist’s coat of arms. The agreement is: when you cease to take the world personally, you relinquish your credentials and your moral hold and your subject matter, and it's then that they issue you a gold card and they tell you that life is hard but that you should relax and then they send you on your way and you are utterly utterly lost—but it's okay because hey it's nothing personal. Just your life.
I want to keep it personal. I want the horrors of the daily New York Times to shake me up. This year, let's make a vow to each other—let's promise to take every thing personally. Let's help each other not be numb. "Deliver us from evil and lead us not into numbness." When I stop feeling embarrassment and rage, please take me out into the garden and bury me where Spot, and Muffy and the hundred family goldfish rest under crossed sticks. “
These poems were first published in Yoel Hoffmann’s “proto-memoir”, Moods (New Directions, 2015), a fascinating set of fragments influenced by Zen Buddhism, Jewish mysticism, and unusual joy. It reads like a numbered series of prose poems. Peter Cole translated the New Directions text from Hebrew.
For more on Hoffmann, see James Wallenstein’s excellent review, “The Tale-less Hoffman” in Tikkun (from whence I cut and pasted the first four poems). Or see Joseph Schreiber’s blog, where I found the piece by Hoffmann piece above.
I could write about how the Bible that the principal gave me at the end of eighth grade saved my life (it was in the pocket of my army vest and the bullet went into it up to the Book of Nehemiah) or, how, as though in an American movie, I went to the wedding of a girl I was in love with once and at the last minute etcetera. Which is to say, a bona fide story with plot twists and intrigue and an ending cut off like a salami (to keep it modern).
Books like those have at least three-hundred-and-twenty-eight pages, and in the end mobs of people running around you like holograms.
But I can’t, because of the turquoise sunbirds.
Some of our readers are no doubt saying to themselves: At last, a real story. I wonder what will happen next.
We don’t know if we can say what will happen next. For that we’d need real inspiration, and inspiration, as we know, comes from somewhere else, like prophecy.
We could, toward the end of the book, tell about a murder, and then when the woman asks, Who killed him, the detective will answer, You.
Or we could make it a love story, and the woman will ask, And who is that woman you always dream of, and the man will answer, You.
And what then? What happens in books after they end? Then, and only then, does the true story begin. Again there’s no end. No division between different things. All the colors come at once.
We owe nothing to no one. Certainly not a story. If we like we could write a single word 7,387 times. A word is as cheap as a stick. Or we could compose our sentences along the lines of Japanese syntax (that is, from the end to the beginning). Or insist that the publisher burn the bottom edge of the book so that the reader’s hand will be blackened by the charcoaled page . . .
 Disappointments start small and grow into us. Janet Malcolm remembers the power of her first disappointment—how it reframed the world and the way in which she consciously related that world to her self hood. She considers the significance of her response to being given peony petals rather than the promised rose petals. Janet uses this to probe the childhood self and the negative emotional space that surprised her. Was it the first time she felt self-consciously set apart from her peers? Or was it an aesthetic that remained constant, one which leads her to the present day when she looks down on “fragile” peonies? Write a brief CNF about the first memory you have of disappointment.
. Wildebeests follow the rain in annual migratory loops around southeastern Africa. Write a flash CNF that makes us of this fact.
 Molly Brodak's harrowing and unredemptive memoir, Bandit, follows the life of her father, a gambler, a bank robber, a survivor, a prisoner. Brodak uses her father's narrative to reveal the child that grew out of it. Use the following line as a prompt to free-write: "The houses I lived in felt more like boats than houses."
 Is there anything you wish people could know about you automatically, without explanation? Any part of your past experience that you need to mark down and keep? What tattoo would you use and why? If you’ve already done this, then use your most resonant tat for this exercise. Write a CNF about the tattoo you would choose to tell an integral story in your life—and how that experience has marked you.
Living in a country where femininity is so closely tied to the marketing of motherhood and family life, I value the writers who walk into the most painful parts of the womb space. I need their words in my head when I see an ad that sells me children. I need their voices to remind of what lies beneath the silence. I need a world that acknowledges both the beauty and the terror of life inside a female body.
And to acknowledge these—now.
Tara Isabel Zambrano’s “Piecing” (TriQuarterly)
Ingrid Jendrzejewski’s “The Miscarriage: A Poem” (Mutha Magazine)
Chelsea Dingman’s “How All Things Are Managed” (Palette Poetry)
Sandeep Pramar’s “An Uncommon Language” (The Poetry Review)
Dorothea Lasky’s “Miscarriage” (Poetry)
Allíe Marini’s “Two Pounds, Two Ounces” (Obra / Artifact)
Chloe Yelena Miller’s “Mammal’s Cries” (Dying Dahlia Review)
Linda Dove’s “Fear Is A Walk Through Immovable Trees” (Cease, Cows)
Zoë Brigley Thompson’s “Star / Sun / Snow” (Mothers Always Write)
Emma Bolden’s “House Is the Word My Doctors Used for My Body” (The National Poetry Review)
Laura Turner’s “Missing Hope: A Trio of Miscarriages, and What Happened After” (Catapult)
In my hometown, the less there is to discuss, the more impassioned the discussions. This is true at gas stations, in school parking lots, in hair salons, in every place where people huddle and clot except the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.
At the V.A. Hospital, words are held in reserve, marshaled for unknown future action.
We visit the vets to honor them. We pronounce each name aloud as if part of a liturgy. We sing songs, play piano pieces, and attend to geographic details in their personal histories. We intend to offer hope, although the vessel which bears hope is usually nothing more gilded than a story, a vignette from outside the handsome red colonial brick walls.
When we arrive, the administrator’s smile chloroforms us.
“There will be two separate holiday performances for two separate groups of vets,” she drones.
I try to speak, joke— I didn’t realize the demand for carols was so high.
“No, it’s not a logistical issue.” The administrator assures me they have all the space they need. The bad joke rolls like a penny across the glossed floor.
The caroling needs to be divided because the recent vets refuse to share a room with the Vietnam and Korea vets. That is all she can tell me. Words are held in reserve, held back like reserve troops, not wasted on minor explanations. I imagine a massive aluminum tank bubbling with abandoned verbs, the gradual condensation of past tense.
Since our visit is divided according to wars, I begin to mark off each carol as a particular battle. Each song one breath closer to victory. There are no losses in our vocal battles because we have nothing to lose whereas they have already lost the things they hoped not to lose. Independence sounds abstract but aches like a concrete pillar pinning a foot in place.
My son performs a piece he composed especially for the vets. The piece is named “V.A. Vets’ Carol”.
A ward asks if he can’t play “Carol of the Bells” instead, since most vets prefer familiar, popular tunes to personal ones. There is so little we can offer these men and women that does not feel intrusive or privileged.
Be polite, I remind the kids between carols.
It is unclear whether I am referring to the sudden jumping jacks or the burgeoning impulse, the ongoing spontaneous impoliteness, that burning flame of childhood that runs and bumps and jumps and finds occasional release in a string of why why why whys. I worry their actions might be misinterpreted.
Neuroscience studies have shown social anxiety to be an entombment within first person— an inability to adequately hear or see other human beings. Jokingly, a researcher said the cure for this anxiety-induced lack of empathy might be as simple as good manners. The researcher was kidding but the truth isn’t funny.
The truth is a web of over-taut nerves which threaten to snap. I fear that my words will cause harm; that my nouns will turn against me; that my children will sell me to the hospital administrators. Selling information, after all, is as natural to them as withholding has become to me.
I don’t remember being innocent enough that my words caused unintentional hurt. My empathy deficit widens to include my children alongside the silent, smiling veterans.
Thank you for….—and I’m not sure how to finish after making eye contact and realizing the man cannot see me. He is blind. I am a voice drifting through the room to thank him for his service and this phrase suddenly feels vulgar and ominous. I am a conventional arrangement of meaningless platitudes floating past. I am a hallucination. Mostly, I am so very very sorry.
Ten feet away, my son chatters about heirloom seeds with an elderly female in a wheelchair, her silver hair bobbed into a sleek helmet. She is beautiful. She is resilient tomato stalks pummeled by southern rain. She is still standing— despite the wheelchair.
The heart stutters, bats its wings against a closed window, when I overhear the words protest and pacifist coming from Max’s lips.
It is over. The moment has arrived. I will be unmasked as the traitor who carried cardboard signs with the words Not In My Name painted in black tempera. Every eye in the room will turn to erase me.
A nurse will speak firmly when she asks me to leave.
The firmness in her voice will be thick and unyielding as a druid oak root.
Veterans will rise from their chairs and raise their fists in anger and fury.
I shoo the hummingbird in my heart away, tell it to settle down. Slurp soda water. But the drum in my head leaves me deaf.
The vet who resembles Ursula K. LeGuin motions to me, “Come here”. Here it comes. Finally. My son flaps his hands and continues speaking.
I smile, my name is Alina.
The surface of the heart is silent but the not in my name by now marches to its own underground drumbeat. As it always has. As it will continue.
“Your son says you’ve had a rough year,” she says hoarsely, a soft grin easing the corner of her lips upwards, a genuine expression of a school teacher’s retired sympathy. She is not what I expected. A fellow-veteran of American female-ness. A rebel, I imagine, to have served in the military so long ago—back before females were officially acknowledged.
“WWII,” she explains. “I was telling your son about flying old aircraft. He said you were a feminist.”
Did she use the f-word? What is familiar for us— a word still forbidden.
She isn’t going to confront me. Her name is Margot. She’s happy to make my acquaintance. She believes we have something in common.
I don’t know if she got the whole story.
“I told her about your tinnitus, mom.” Max leans against my arm, confident, the ghost of Howard Zinn between us.
Margot nods, her squint resembling the fruit in a bowl of cereal. “I’ve had tinnitus since my thirties. Other mothers didn’t understand. It made me feel lonely. And different.”
Does it ever go away? I want to pretend I didn’t ask. To erase my silly question and the silly flower-skirted face of me.
Margot shakes her head. “Tinnitus lasts longer than most marriages these days. It’s a very faithful friend.”
We have tinnitus in common. But the other mothers could never understand—they weren’t vets were they?
Mar-got. I tender her name like a tiny mollusk still attached at the center, a fragile mystery I can’t bear to break.
“They weren’t vets…” That smile again. Only now do I notice her hand trembling. The expression on her face, nonplussed, says they’d been trembling all along.
“Are you a vet?” She asks in earnest. Her face is a tapestry, a splendid map, and I am only just now beginning to read it.
“No, I’m not a veteran. I’ve never experienced war. Or combat.” I fight so many colors of shame.
Margot’s face lights up. “Oh, you’re a veteran, alright. Your son says you homeschool. And that you have tinnitus. And that you’ve brought that kids with you. To protests.”
The moment has arrived— brighter, more blinding than I could have imagined.
My son had told Margot about my involvement in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. About the protests against war. And Margot is still smiling without a hint of anything hidden below the surface. Looking at me as if she’s not afraid to read the whole story.
Her eyes honor me.
The honor of her eyes is relentless.
She honors me with her eyes until the word changes colors and honor becomes a word that has everything to do with seeing one another outside our social anxieties and comfortable scripts. On this trembling, quake-prone ground, a child’s earnest impulse is the true one. Looking back, I can’t see anything else.
A poem that brings the perfect end to my day.
Reading Mary Ruefle’s “Woman With a Yellow Scarf” (Iowa Review, 2008).
She gives us a woman with a yellow scarf in a story by Camus. The blinding sensory detail that draws the reader out of a story, that changes the tone and texture without resolving it. Without settling anywhere we can know or mark.
I think of the dead sparrow on the front porch steps with a cat purring nearby, a cat coiling her tail and stretching near the fallen sparrow. You are torn between horror and the emergent need to parent, to congratulate proud Whiskers. Oh Whiskers, what a strong a reckless kitty you are! (Oh Whiskers, what on earth?)
You enter the house in search of plastic bag to remove the broken bird. Whiskers rumbles between your legs, purring, satisfied. You forgot Whiskers was wicked. You forgot so much about the nature of furred beasts when you let him into your bed and started telling stories in which he served as protagonist. Something new and strange has emerged between you and Whiskers. There is no way to explain or discuss this emergence. And no way to know if Whiskers understands.
[This is where the story changes. This is the first brick of suspense weighing on your characters. Use it. ]
Because sometimes it helps to get outside the box of your own amazing brain.
Unless you have a concept-driven manuscript that just writes itself, ordering and organizing is one of the most difficult parts. Since I’ve been grueling my way through it for the past month, I wanted to hand the help along. A few thoughts on how poems speak to one another from my notebooks:
Syntax is the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses). How does your syntax inform your lines? Which comes first for you—the line break or the thought? How can you maximize the effect of your syntax in a collection?
Some poems resist being paratextually situated. Poems not on the page. A poem in the DNA sequence of bacterium; on the wall of a city park. Give these extra space to breathe or become part of textual landscape.
Audre Lorde’s injunction to move away from the language of rhetoric that oppresses the body and kills the poem. The master’s house is a persuasive podium. What alternate stagings can you mobilize in a collection?
Paul Valery said the first line of a poem is like finding a fruit that has fallen from a tree; the poet’s take is to create a tree from which this fruit can fall. In the context of a collection, imagine the field where this particular tree must grow. Maybe Brooklyn?
A refrain is refrain, or a phrase, line, or group of lines that recurs at regular intervals in a poem. If the refrain is partial or irregular, it’s called a repetend. If the refrain is as long as a stanza, it’s called a burden. Slight modulations are called incremental repetitions. If the repetitions pop up in multiple poems, that’s called an obsession, or a great peg to explore as binding for collection. Maybe you can leave your hat on.
Julian Barnes sees past conditional tense as a form of privilege wielded by the present against the past. Like “What mother would have wanted…” a hypothetical based on a person who lived and now doesn’t. A double remove prone to projection. What tenses are you using in the poems? Is that an organizing theme or a layer that should be moving through each section?
Powerful images that create a place. Poems that journey over familiar terrain, often looking to find or retrieve something, a former self, a memory, a sense of home without motion. See “A Blessing” by James Wright. See “To Go to Lvov” by Adam Zagajewski— emotional landscape, place names, local patois and expression, local foods and colors. See Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa for a model on how this lyric placing becomes a collection.
“They betray their Gods, but remain on good terms with those who call themselves His attorneys." (Arnold Schoenberg, c. 1926)
Epigraphs are such a toss-up. They work or they don’t. It’s like nutmeg can make or mess up a quiche. For my first chapbook, Objects in Vases, the epigraphs were set up in dialogue with each other as well as with the poems and their container forms. I can’t imagine the book without those epigraphs. That said, I don’t feel as strong a need for epigraphs to frame this current collection.
Someone said think in sequences or series. And so I am. Because it really shakes up my usual process.
Get comfortable with the known forms and strategies of poets you admire. See Alberto Rios’ outline of organization strategies to broaden the base.
Print a copy of Rebecca Dunham’s easy PDF guide to making a poetry manuscript and study it. Then cut and paste and collage it into a series of poems. To catch your breath. From the terror of having looked at the big picture.
On to my betters now.
Katrina Vandenberg: “A poem is an accumulation of different kinds of repetition. When you repeat a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, you get meter; when you repeat sounds you get alliteration, rhyme, assonance; when you repeat images, you get a motif; when you repeat an idea, a theme. A poem's natural compression heightens these sensations of repetition. Something like this can happen over the length of a book as well, as various kinds of repetitions take place over a series of poems. / You can create cohesion in a manuscript by linking poems not just according to the obvious issues of theme, chronology, or similar forms, but also by repeated images, colors, and shapes. You can juxtapose: Follow a long poem with a short one; let a poem argue with whatever the last one asserted was true. Break up a group of similar poems to make the reading experience less symmetrical—intersperse, say, narrative poems from the point of view of a specific character with lyrics about objects that appear tangentially in the narratives. In this way the relationship among poems becomes more subtle and complex, more unexpected and, therefore, more exciting.” (Katrina Vandenberg’s “mix-tape strategy” to manuscript assembly hones in on multiple strategies by comparing them to music albums, including repetition, themes, etc. is one of my favorites on thinking through the collection.)
Angela Topping: “From that starting poem, find another one that speaks to it, either by contrast, similarity, different angle on the same topic, or any small link like a word in common, or a place.”
Zack Rogow: “If it’s poetry you’re writing, your target is probably 50 to 70 pages.”
Caroline Hagood: “In terms of choosing what poems to include, I like to use what I call the Marie Kondo method. Hold each poem in your hand and then put into the collection only the ones that “spark joy” in you. They can be exceedingly sad poems. I don’t mean that they all have to be joyous but just that they should each make you feel something like an inner flutter.”
Alberto Rios: “If nothing else, we might consider that a title not tell us where we've been, or where we are going. It simply might tell us where we are. It locates. It grounds. That is the first work of a title. There is other work, certainly, but locating is a first work, and perhaps the why of a title. It is the thumb doing what it must finally do: help when it can, which is often enough. It's not a decoration attached to the hand, no matter how attractive and manicured. And an absent thumb: well, picking up the glass of iced tea becomes a more difficult act.”
“What about “contexture”? The contextuality provided for each poem by the larger frame within which it is placed, the intertextuality among poems so placed, an the resultant texture of resonance and meaning?” Gerald Huml shares a bullet-list of handy notes from Natasha Saje’s essay on “dynamic design”
Kelli Russell Agodon: “Now on these section breaks, I could have used a symbol, a word, a number, anything to signal that we were at a place of rest, but I have had these quotes in my head that I have been wanting to use forever, so those became part of section breaks.”
Marilyn McCabe: “Imaginative + vivid + fully felt = winning combination.”
April Ossman: “Other ordering considerations include whether to heighten or downplay the poet’s repetition of particular imagery, words, or subjects. If there are too many repetitions of a word or image, I generally recommend making some substitutions, and placing those poems at strategic intervals in the manuscript. This can create a subtle sense of obsession rather than a numbing one.”
Roy Marshall: “Poems can enhance one another by echoing or expanding on an idea, emotion or image. You could group similar poems in section or sequence or space them throughout the pamphlet as a kind of recurring thread that ties the pamphlet together.”
Sandra Marchetti: “Another exercise poets can do to see how their work might cohere is to write about the collection. It’s helpful first to read your poems and try to locate specific patterns, words, and motifs that recur within the set. This can also help you to create sections. Jot notes down on the individual poems. Then, write a journal entry explaining to yourself why these poems belong together. Talk about what the mission of the collection is, and keep writing until you figure out how the strands of the book weave together. Then, read over what you have written. Have you successfully articulated what this book is about, even if it took you awhile? If so, there is probably a book somewhere within that pile of poems. It’s now your job to carve that book out, the one you really want to write.”
Marilyn McCabe: “I decided finally that what I was missing was a kind of reaching. This very able poet was not reaching beyond her grasp. She knew the world of her poems too well. If I call what I wanted from this manuscript more risk-taking, what do I mean by that? It’s a sense, I think, of a mind in motion rather than a mind at rest; questions asked and pondered rather than answered. What does it mean for any of us to take risks in our work? How do I write a poem that feels risky to me, that feels like I’m peering over the edge of something, and something that makes the reader tremble there too? Is risk about subject area, form, language, meaning?”
Leeanne Quinn: “You cannot ‘will’ order, so don’t force connections for the sake of it.”
Jamaal May: “Alan Shapiro pointed out that I had a habit of ending poems with three verb constructions. That's fine on its own but a bunch of poems in a row that end that will way feel samey. I recommend going through and reading the first two and last two lines of every poem. Do you always start with the same kind of syntax? Is the last line always a declarative sentence? How long are your first sentences? What about the last?”
Claudia Cortese: “I think that the first few poems should introduce the key themes/ characters/ motifs/ forms/ concerns of the book. I also think that one has to really have kick-ass poems from beginning to end, and if they are killer, various orders will do. Also, I like when collections are a little messy in regard to tone and image, so that a poem sometimes comes out of left field and surprises me.”
Hila Ratzabi on how to use Scrivener to assemble a poetry manuscript.
Jeffrey Levine, the editor of Tupelo Press, has blogged quite a bit about the poetry collection assembly process.
Much gratitude to Nancy Chen Long for her list (which led me to many of these links), as well as all the writers, editors, and bloggers who share their advice and thoughts with others. Although we write alone in our loneliest, we publish together in hope and dread and terror.
September 1939. In the ongoing round-ups of foreign bodies, in the particular camping-away of German nationals in France, Walter Benjamin was rounded and left in a Navers camp more than one miles south of Paris. Three months of internment where Walter taught philosophy in exchange for cigarettes and matches.
Because PEN secured his release, Walter went back to Paris--back to his books, his storied ruins, his work on The Arcades Project. He wrote "Theses on the Philosophy of History" in the cold harrow of rising fascism.
Because he wanted to live—because he wanted nothing more than to survive—Walter tried to get a visa.
Because he failed.
Because the Nazis occupied France.
Because Walter still wanted nothing more than life—he fled with three friends on the route over the Pyrenee mountains towards the neutral territory of Spain.
Because I might have lied. Because Walter’s briefcase included a manuscript that he described as more precious than his life.
Because Walter and his friends were arrested in Spain and taken to Portbou.
Because the Spanish authorities demanded a French exit visa.
Because the Spanish authorities refused to honor the US entrance visa that Walter’s friends had secured.
Because the Spanish authorities said the refugees would be returned to France and from there, extradited to Germany.
Because it had been less than a year since his internment in France.
Because “every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter”.
Because despair is attenuated by memory.
Because history is a series of disparities rendered collective.
Because Walter had seen to much, he took an overdose of morphine on September 26 (or 27), 1940.
Because he died, his fellow exiles in America mourned his failure to escape the prison of life.
Because Hannah Arendt had a typewriter, she noted that Spanish border officials were so disturbed by Walter’s sudden suicide that they allowed his friends and travel companions to go on to Portugal without the required visas.
Because Walter’s friends survived, we imagine a new narrative.
Because the briefcase vanished, Walter died.
Walter Benjamin is buried in the cemetery of Portbou, Spain (image credit). Dani Karavan’s memorial to Benjamin is located in front of the cemetery.
“Theses on the Philosophy of History”. Written by Walter Benjamin after his 3-month internment in a French concentration camp in 1939.
Walter on divine violence.
Thinking in “constellations” rather than doctrines.
On the apocalypse and social democracy.
On his concept of “aura” as applied to photography.
On refugees in Portbou and Karavan.
A compendium of Walter’s writings.
Sometimes I need to slip out of my own head and into someone else’s straitjacket. Ergo cameo.
Since this is hard to read, I’ve attached a PDF at the bottom. Download it. Have fun with it. Cameos are the perfect compositional form for traffic.