“Weaning” and “The Sleeper”

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of two new poems, “Weaning” and “The Sleeper”, in Antilang no. 10 — emergence. You can read the entire issue here, or skip right to my poems on this page. In either case, hitting the “fullscreen” button in the bottom right will provide the best reading experience.

These poems are about my daughters, though somewhat obliquely in the case of the first. When Perpetua was a toddler, I had to wean her very suddenly, going from nursing frequently throughout the day to nothing at all. That abrupt stop was physically painful, and my body struggled to adjust to the fact that I didn’t need to make milk anymore. “Weaning” captures a little bit of that experience.

I wrote “The Sleeper” about six months into the pandemic. Having a young baby around during most of 2020 was, in some ways, surprisingly grounding. Tertia didn’t care about germs or geopolitics, but only about the simplest aspects of our being: warmth, food in the belly, love, sleep. Tending to her needs became a way to shield myself from the greater worries of the world.

Learn more about the magazine at antilang.ca.

Going Home for Christmas / Going South

Once upon a time, I lived in a city that was a few hours north-east of my hometown. At the time I didn’t have a car (or a driver’s license, for that matter) so visiting my parents usually meant a long Greyhound trip. Sometimes, though, the train tickets went on a big enough sale that I could mentally justify the expense of the much pleasanter rail trip. I loved taking the train — still do, really.

One of the funny things about traveling between these two cities was that winter arrived in them at different times. About a decade ago I took the train home for Christmas, and while it was thoroughly cold and snowy in the city where I lived, it was really still just late fall where I was going. It was so odd to see the scenery change from winter to fall, as if a time-lapse film were playing in reverse.

Naturally, I wrote a poem about the experience. It has just been published by The Scriblerus in their Spring 2021 “travel” issue and you can read it here.

Small spring updates

Garden

The tulips are out.

Kitchen

I made lasagna today for the first time, and so the kids and I also made homemade ricotta following this recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. Dead easy, delicious, and about half the price of a tub from the store. We’ll be doing this again.

Gelatine adventures continue. I’ve been doing teas! Vanilla Rooibos is delicious in jelly form, Jasmine Green Tea a little pretty so-so. I’m thinking my next experiment will be cubed jellied Earl Grey with a sweetened condensed milk pour-over. Also I’m saving bones in the freezer to try my hand at p’tcha. More foods should have names that fun to say. P’tcha!

Words

My poem “Seclusion (A Checklist)” has been published by Jet Fuel Review (issue 21) and can be read online here. It’s part of this issue’s special section featuring golden shovel poems — a relatively new poetic form that is technically challenging and used to pay tribute to another poem or poet. The poet chooses a line by another writer, and each word of the origi line becomes the last word of each line in the new poem — such that the original line may be read down the right-hand side. Confused? I always find it a bit difficult to explain but seeing an example will make it fairly obvious.

In my case, I used a line by Christabel LaMotte, a poet who does not, technically speaking, exist; she’s a character in A. S. Byatt’s remarkable novel Possession (about which I have written here, and which also makes my list of desert island books). I was struck by the line “to drag a long life out in a dark room” in one of LaMotte’s/Byatt’s poems, and — well, click the link above if you would like to see where that took me!

Maryland Summer

Toddler Perpetua in Ocean City, MD.

Our family lived in Maryland for almost three years, in a walk-up apartment with a South-West facing balcony. I loved to sit out there in the long summer evenings: our complex was surrounded by trees, which were perfectly silhouetted by the changing colours of the sunset. They would slowly shade to black as the sky became a deeper and deeper blue, until finally the first stars came out. Behind the nearby sound barrier, the cars on I-83 sounded like waves on the beach.

I’m very pleased to announce that my piece “Maryland Summer: Three Small Evening Poems” has just been published in the second issue of Humana Obscura.

You can read the entire issue online here, or purchase a print copy here. You’ll find me on page 19.

Writing means to try

Right now I am about halfway through reading the first volume of Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill. It covers her early years, from her first memories of their family’s farm in Yamhill, to her adolescence Portland, Oregon, where her family moved when she was six. As a child, Cleary lived near Klickitat Street — a name you may recognize from the Henry Huggins and Ramona books. She was born in 1916, which makes her a few years older than my oldest grandparent, and A Girl from Yamhill is a wonderful peek into the world of children a century ago.

It’s also given me a lot to think about when I consider the craft of writing. I enjoy catching moments from Cleary’s own life that later made it into her books, like the school play in which she played a soldier, bowled over with her leg in the air after being hit with a basketball cannonball; the same thing happens in Henry’s school play. But more than that, Cleary relates an epiphany she had as a young girl of eight or nine, about the practice of writing:

If I lost something, Mother said, “You’ll have to learn to look after your things.” I did. If I was involved in a neighborhood squabble, I got no sympathy. “What did you do?” Mother always asked, leaving me with the feeling that, no matter what happened, I was to blame. “Try,” Mother often said.

And try I did. When Abendroth’s store across from Fernwood [School] announced a contest sponsored by Keds shoes for the best essay about an animal, many of my class planned to enter. I chose the beaver, because Oregon was known as the Beaver State. On green scratch paper left over from printing checks, which Father brought home from the bank, I wrote my essay and took it to Mr. Abendroth. On the final day of the contest, I ran to the store to learn the results. I had won! Mr. Abendroth handed me two dollars. Then he told me no one else had entered the contest.

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying. I also wrote a letter to the Shopping News, which published the letter and paid me a dollar.

Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill, 105.

Try! I’ve been writing poetry for years and years, since I was a girl not much older than Beverly Cleary with her beaver essay. And I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, in a vague sort of way, to be a published poet. I don’t know how I thought that would happen given that I never submitted a single line anywhere, but want it I did. In the middle of the 2010s I started sending things out — barely — just one or two poems to one or two outlets about once a year. My expectations were not realistic; when I wasn’t instantly picked up by the first places I tried, I just stopped trying. This may have soothed my feelings, but it’s not exactly a path to publication.

Last summer, though, I also came to realize that if this was really something I wanted, it meant, well, trying. Now I sit down once a month, browse open calls on submittable, and send out a big batch of poems. This takes me an evening or two; there’s a lot of fiddly work to do in making sure that I’m following each journal/magazine’s particular guidelines, picking poems that I think would be good matches for their themes or style, and the like. Mostly I submit to outlets without reading fees; occasionally I will pay a few dollars if I think I have a particularly good match. Everything goes in a spreadsheet where I keep track of what I have out for consideration, response times, acceptances, rejections, and a page just for nice things people say about my poems that I can read over when I feel like a phony. And you know what? Trying works.

Here are my current numbers:

  • Contest placements: 1
  • Accepted poems: 4
  • Withdrawn from consideration: 8
  • Rejections: 141
  • Still under consideration: 42

There are some things that have become clear to me. One is that this is a numbers game. Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry is highly subjective, and it takes time and a lot of tries to match up what you’ve written with someone who wants to publish it. The second thing is that publishers need writers. Poetry magazines and literary journals could not exist without writers submitting to them; in a way, editors need me just as much as I need them. And the final thing is that rejections are a good sign. I don’t mean that I’m never disappointed when a submission is rejected (although as time goes by this is less and less true), but rather that I can take every rejection as evidence that I’m trying, I’m putting the process in motion, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, all this trying doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll succeed. I might keep sending things out for the next five years and never publish another poem. I don’t know, and that part of it is out of my control. But I do know this: trying gives me infinite more chances to succeed than not-trying does, and that? That is something I can work with.

Here’s to trying.

Breaditations

I’ve very excited to announce that my poem “Breaditations” has just been published by Understorey Magazine in their “Food Work” Issue (19). I wrote this poem in the early spring of this year, and it conflates my experience trying to process pandemic-related news reports with the process of baking bread. You can click through here to read it, and I encourage you to explore more of what this issue has to offer!

(Note that because of some formatting stuff, my piece will look best either on desktop, or if you turn your phone sideways to access a wider screen.)

Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 3 — the backburner)

In the shaping of a poem, inspiration provides its genesis: the recognition of the moment, image, feeling, etc. that you as the poet are trying to capture. Craft provides the structure and the technical work that allows you to capture it. But what about when neither of them seems to have an answer?

A few years ago, I wrote a short poem at a poetry slam (at a seniors’ centre, which is another story), riffing on the theme of Little Boy Blue. The second stanza starts like this:

Little Boy Blue, your music is fine,
[da-dum] than coffee and [dee-dum] than wine

… so what are da-dum and dee-dum? For nearly three years I have been playing with this line, trying to figure out whether it’s supposed to be

smoother than coffee and stronger than wine

or

stronger than coffee and smoother than wine

or something else entirely. I like the mild alliterative effect of having both adjectives start with S. My trouble is that both adjectives apply equally to both nouns: we talk about strong wine, or smooth [tasting] wine, or strong coffee, or smooth [tasting] coffee. I like the first line better, because I like the image of the music being intoxicating, like strong wine. But then I like the second line better, because I like the image of the music being invigorating, like strong coffee. But actually I like the first better, because I like the image of the music going down smoothly (as it were) like dark black coffee. But really I like the second better, because I like the image of the music going down smoothly like rich red wine. And around and around and around I go.

In this case, neither inspiration nor craft seems to be able to help me much. I’m stuck; perhaps the best thing to do is simply to pick one and let it be what it will be. (Yet even that is somewhat unsatisfactory, because I am left with the gnawing question of whether I picked the right line.) So now what?

Now comes another tool in my poet’s toolbox: leaving it alone. Forgetting about it. Letting it sit in one of the dusty back corners of my mind until, one day, it will suddenly jump back to the forefront, triumphantly declaring what it ought to be. This has worked for me before. I had a poem I wrote once that wasn’t quite right in its last stanza — but I couldn’t pinpoint the exact problem, and so, of course, couldn’t fix it, either. So I let it alone. About two years later, it suddenly occurred to me when I was in the middle of doing something completely unrelated, that I had used the word “turn” twice in the last stanza, the effect of which was rather clunky. I changed one instance to “face,” instead, and presto — a fixed, finished, poem. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my subconscious, inspiration and craft had been having a quiet conclave, working slowly but surely to give me the right word.

Inspiration and craft are useful tools, but they’re not always the kind we can wield totally at our own will. Sometimes there is simply no way to force the [rhyme/line/stanza], despite our best efforts. Sometimes the best thing we can do with a piece of work is to walk away.

Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 2 — revision)

One of the major foci of the Sharpened Visions course is the art of revision: a word that was anathema to me for probably all of my teenage years. As mentioned in my previous post, for most of my life I have written poetry as the muse took me, and only as the muse took me. (I’ve never had a problem revising prose — but poetry has always felt different to me for some reason.) When I was writing poems, whatever I wrote was what I ended up with — as if every word, image, and line had been graven in stone instead of scribbled on paper. What the muse dictated, I wrote — period.

This wasn’t optimal.

That’s not to say that everything I wrote before I learned to revise properly was garbage. But neither was it as strong as it could have been, had I the gumption to sit back and critically evaluate my own words, rather than treating them as if they were so precious as to be immutable. I felt very strongly that to edit my words would be a betrayal of the words as they came to me — though where this feeling originated I can’t say.

There were two main factors in play, I think. The first was my peculiar understanding of inspiration (and the tendency to treat my own work as if it were Inspired rather than inspired). The second was laziness. Revision, after all, takes some work. Drafting takes work. It’s much easier to just tell yourself, “well, I write to final, is all” and let that be the end of things. The tricky thing is that usually I could get away with this. Even into undergrad, I would write one first-and-final draft of my essays and hand them in; while my grades weren’t spectacular, they were certainly good enough. So if I could get myself inspired (or close enough), write one draft, and pass with a healthy average — where was the impetus to revise? There simply wasn’t any.

Somewhere around the time I started showing my poetry to my writers’ group, I started to get serious about drafting and revising. Some of that has to do with actually showing my work to others, but a lot had to do with observing other members of the group as they carefully reworked and reshaped what they had until it was what they had meant it to be all along. It was there that I first realised the value that others could contribute to my work, as they gently challenged me to make it better. And it was there that I learned to relish being able to serve others in the same way.

All of this was cemented during the process of writing my thesis for my masters degree. My advisor was fairly hands-off during the writing process — thank goodness! — but his editing suggestions on my draft chapters were insightful. I almost never agreed with him the first time I read his comments, but as I looked at what I had written through someone else’s eyes and began the work of revising, reworking, reshaping, rewriting… I found that his critiques inevitably made my work stronger. He forced me to push and pull at my words until they said exactly what I needed them to, no more and no less. I am very grateful for his help as I learned to do this.

Instead of worshiping at inspiration’s altar, I am now a devotee of the craft of revision. I don’t even transcribe my poems onto the computer now until they’ve been through at least three drafts in my notebook. Sometimes a poem changes into something almost unrecognisable as it moves through drafts, which is what my younger self was afraid would happen. But this is relatively rare. More often, the craft of revision enables a poem to become, in the end, more like itself than it ever was before — and there is the real value of revising.

Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 1 — prompts)

I’ve been writing poetry this summer. Well, I’ve been writing poetry since I was around eight years old, but this summer has been different: I enrolled myself in a poetry workshop via Coursera, hosted by the poet Douglas Kearney out of CalArts. The course is a MOOC — Massive Online Open Course — open to anyone with an internet connection, and so it’s something one does for personal enrichment rather than any sort of academic credit. Every week we watch some short video lectures, take a comprehension quiz, and then are given an assignment, which consists of two poetry prompts. Every few weeks we submit a drafted poem for peer critique, and have the opportunity to critique our classmates’ work as well. Overall, I have enjoyed the experience.

The process of workshopping isn’t totally new to me. Two cities ago, I belonged to a small group of writer-friends who would meet every month or two to drink wine and scotch, talk about nerdy literary stuff, and share our writings (mostly poetry, with a few short stories thrown in). It was great fun, and I miss that group terribly — both as individuals, and as members of a lovely and congenial space for sharpening our writing. Halcyon days indeed.

The major difference with the Sharpened Visions workshop — besides the fact that none of us are interacting in person — is the process of working off of set prompts. When I’ve written poetry before, it’s usually been 100% at inspiration’s beck and call: I would write when the fancy struck me or when a poem started rattling around in my head asking to be born. But I don’t think I’ve ever before regularly sat down and said to myself, “Now I will write a poem about X,” or “now I will write a poem in the form Y,” or “Now I will use rhyme-scheme Z.” A poem, of course, may have ended up with a certain structure or rhyme scheme or what have you, as it came about. Historically, however, when I’ve sat down and tried to craft a certain type of poem it has tended to derail halfway through, as in this terrible (though aptly named) sonnet from a few years ago:

Unfocussed Sonnet

The passing moments take me by surprise:
Each second comes and suddenly is gone,
Then comes and goes the next, and time flows on,
And every minute flees before my eyes.

Here in this passing we are too soon spent.
Each passing hour touches eternity,
And never will return again — but we
Become subsumed in how to pay the rent.

The sonnet form is harder than you think!
When halfway through without a conclusion
The poet’s thoughts all turn to confusion
(Though she may take some solace in pink ink).

The last couplet is the grand finale:
In theory, it is a hot tamale!

“In theory, it is a hot tamale.” Oy.

Writing poems from Sharpened Visions’ weekly prompts has been a very stretching experience — but a good one. I have been learning to lean less on inspiration as the main driver behind what I’m writing, and to pay more attention to the technical specs of whatever form I’m using. Generally I only pick one of the two prompts each week to focus on, but after the class ends I will likely go back and try the rest, because I have found them to be such useful exercises. Overall, I’ve come to a better understanding that there really is no “vs.” in between inspiration and craft (despite the title of this post); they are partners, each contributing something important to the creation of a poem.

I’ve started trying my hand at sonnets again; I wrote one, for a friend, and the realised that it wanted to be something more, so I am expanding it into a sonnet redoublé. This is a group of fifteen sonnets in which the last line of the first fourteen sonnets becomes the first line of the next — with the first line of the first sonnet taken from the last line of the fourteenth — and the fifteenth sonnet  (the “Mastersonnet”) is made up of the fourteen linking lines from the first fourteen sonnets. So my initial sonnet has become a Mastersonnet, and I am slowly filling in the rest.

It’s difficult and slow going; I think I have been working on this for two or three weeks now, at a rate of one sonnet every couple of days, and have now finished nine of the fifteen. This is, without a doubt, the most technically challenging poem I have ever attempted — and it has given me numerous occasions to kick myself for choosing certain rhymes in the Mastersonnet which are just a pain to have to deal with over and over again. But I have been relishing the challenge. Inspiration provided the initial sonnet and the desire to expand it into something greater; craft is what’s moving me, slowly but surely, toward the finish line. I would never have attempted something like this before Sharpened Visions, and that alone is reason enough to make me glad that I enrolled.

Explore more: Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop | Douglas Kearney | CalArts