Tiny White Flowers

Tiny White Flowers

Friday, January 30, 2009

Wesley McNair's Advice for Beginning Poets

In my search for material on revision, I came across this piece on Poetry Daily.  I think it's great, and gets to the essence of what the revision odyssey is all about.  Read on:

"Advice for Beginning Poets"

from Wesley McNair's

Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry

Ultimately, every poem is a love poem. Write out of humor, sorrow or anger, but write out of love.


If you want your poem to matter to the reader, make sure it is involved — by subject, application of subject, or both — with people other than yourself, even if your poem speaks with an "I."


How should your poem begin? Where possible, "in medias res," as Horace recommended.


Free verse makes its appeal not only to the ear, but to the eye. Break lines and arrange stanzas to show the mind at work on the page shaping the thought of your poem. The space around the poem in free verse often has its own visual meaning. Make that wordlessness articulate.


Mary Oliver speaks of the poem as an "enactment." Frank Bidart says that the poem imitates an action and is itself an action. In developing your poem, find the action and a climactic order for it, considering at the same time how the action may be shaped to suggest the larger meanings you have in mind. As you write, make action and your syntax unfold as one.


But don't start writing a poem too early. Scribble ideas, lists of images, random lines to invite your right brain — the dreaming and conceiving self — into the process of finding your subject and approach. Resist the left brain, in love with tidiness and completion, until the preliminary writing you have done will not be easy to organize.


The poet does not speak in generalities, but in a code of images; thus Muriel Rukeyser links poetry to painting and other "arts of sight." Your reader should, in the fullest sense of the expression, see what you mean.


Thought will not be possible in your poem unless you give the feet a place to stand, the hands something to touch, the eyes a world to see.


Poetry is written to be spoken. Avoid writing anything you would not actually say in a reasonably articulate conversation.


The true poetic sentence unfolds, as Robert Frost once suggested, and to unfold will normally require a climactic order. Make your sentence climactic, and break to stress its unfolding.


A more appropriate term than line breaking for free verse composition might be sentence-breaking, since our purpose through end-stopping and enjambment is finally to reconstruct the sentence. Enjambed more than once, a statement in free verse may come to resemble a question.


Strive for tension in your free verse poem between the restless and inquisitive sentence and the line that pulls back on it. In conversation, Charles Simic once described the tension this way: "The line is Buddha; the sentence is Socrates."


Allow your sentence as it moves line to line the freedom to surprise you and help you make up your mind — to discover what you didn't know you knew.


Think of your free verse poem as a musical score, in the way Denise Levertov recommended, using lines to emphasize vocal rhythm and the pitch of intonation, and line-breaks as short intervals of silence, or rests.


Mainly, break the lines of your free verse on nouns, verbs, or the words that describe them.


As the poem begins to take shape, there is always a moment when it becomes smarter than you are, and you must be just smart enough to ask it what it wants to do.


The main difficulty once a poem is in motion is to make it as particular and as universal as you can, both at the same time.


To carry the reader to a new place in thought, the turn — that moment in the lower half of a poem when the action opens to its larger meanings — is an important device. Study the sonnet, the first poem in English with a turn (Shakespeare and Keats are a good starting point), to see how the device works. Then study the more associative poems of free verse, in which turns often multiply.


The old advice: understate. Describing a suicide, the culmination of his poem about Richard Cory, E. A. Robinson simply tells us that Cory "went home and put a bullet through his head." Telling about another gruesome event, the killing of a character with a large rock, William Golding says only, "His skull opened."


The poem being a riddle, its title shouldn't give the answer to the riddle. It must stand outside the poem telling what the piece is about, but at the same time be part of the poem, contributing to its mystery, as if it were the first line. (Often the best titles for poems come from their turns or endings, where the deeper meanings are.) Beware of other answers to the riddle, which, in the unrevised poem, often appear at the beginning or the end.




A poem must mean at least two things at once. Better poems have more than two meanings. The best ones have many, which change according to the reader's mood and period of life and can never be fully fathomed.


Because our most demanding poems ask us to think in ways that are entirely new to us, they are often hard to conclude. Allow your poem the time it needs for the right conclusion — which means, allow yourself time to complete the new thought.


If you have doubts about the poem you have written, the kind of doubts that make you want to ask a friend what he or she thinks, don't bother. Trust the doubts.


The capacity to revise determines the true writer. Suspect the finished poem. Your evil twin wants your poem to be finished.


A poet needs to know what the rules are to understand, when inspiration requires it, how to break them. Don't be afraid to get yourself into trouble with your subject matter or your form.... In new struggles, beware of strategies learned in the last battle.... Beware, above all, the artful dodge.


In one of the most remarkable passages of "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman warns us that a facility with language may interfere with the truth we have to tell. Addressing his own poetic speech, he declares, "you conceive too much of articulation."


Write your way down into the poem and let it well up in you, revision by revision, until it is all yours. Showing your poem to someone else before it belongs to you in this way is a little like what showing his face to the camera was for the Indian, since if you do so, part of your poem will belong to another, and will be difficult to get back.


Be careful not to title either your poem or your collection of poems too early, lest the title become a thesis ordering you to do things that obstruct the work's true impulse.


Each day life will whisper into your ear some little or large thing that must be done before turning to the poem. Yet next week, when your poem is still unwritten, you will not remember why these things were so important, or even what they were. Write your poem.


In this period of the public reading, your poem may have its most successful publication from the lectern; yet good readers are few. The best engage their audience expressively, yet without histrionics, speaking the poem's lines in such a way as to let the poem speak for itself.


Most effective poems in free verse break lines to emphasize the pauses the voice might make as the speaker "thinks" the poem's sentences; therefore, the effective public reading will be slow enough to give these pauses the appropriate vocal emphasis, and fast enough to make the audience aware that there is a sentence underway. The audience must be able to hear the tension between the sentence pressing ahead, and the line tugging back on it.


I have just spent a day with three participants in a nearby summer workshop, who have participated in past summer workshops. They are full of talk about who said what about which story in their shared class. They drop the names of writing teachers and ponder their reputations. And of course they carry their manuscripts — some stories, the first draft of a novel, a sheaf of poems — in the hope that someone important will read them and make them famous. What I don't have the courage to tell them — what they need to be told — is that writing is not a social activity, but a solitary one. They need to go home and practice being by themselves for long periods of time with pencil and paper.


The Americanization of writing over the past forty years has involved first the invention of the term "creative writing" for all imaginative work; second, the formulation of a how-to process for creative writing; and third, the socialization of the creative writing process through the workshop. Those who take part in the resulting system should be aware it offers only one way to become a writer, and that way is relatively untried.


Yet teachers can give memorable guidance. At the English School at Bread Loaf, John Nims, who taught creative writing in the old style, would sometimes read a student's poem aloud in class, then look up over his glasses and remark: "There's less here than meets the eye." Once he defined the poem as "a real voice in a real body in a real world."


Just finishing his stint as a teacher at a writers' conference, Bill Roorbach explains to me how difficult it is to convince students to do the deep-down, extensive revision that manuscripts in progress need. The 21-year-old, who is in love with his work and has not yet known revision in his own life, can't see the use of it. The 65-year-old, who has revised his life often, can see the use of it, but questions whether he has the energy and time the job requires. "I tried to tell an older woman she did have the energy and time, in spite of her misgivings," Roorbach says. "After my long pep talk, I discovered I was talking to myself about my own novel."


Visiting the University of New Hampshire one day in the early sixties, I was drawn to the doorway of a lecture hall by a passionate voice speaking about poetry. It turned out the voice belonged to a young man in a suit, whose subject was the damage T. S. Eliot had done to American verse; I learned only later the man was W. D. Snodgrass, invited because he had won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. After he had derided Eliot's obscurantism and that of his models, the French symbolists, he put forth a new model, Geoffrey Chaucer, pointing out Chaucer's accessibility and his sympathy for everyday life. For me, feeling the tyranny of Eliot's influence, the lecture was inspirational. Months later, I would find it echoed in Karl Shapiro's In Defense of Ignorance. Years later, I would find a way to put the ideas I heard to use. But listening to a beardless Snodgrass in that doorway, I saw for the first time the possibility of my own poetry.


Right in the middle of my excitement after publishing my first book of poems, an aging Richard Eberhart made me consider the difficulty of acquiring readers for what I had written. Had I ever thought of how hard it was to make my mark in a period when there were so many poets? he wanted to know. "When I began, it was easy," he said. "There were only a few of us."


Nothing is harder for writers young or old than to keep faith with their work despite rejection. For assistance, memorize this by Robert Francis on the subject of editorial judgment: "In the eyes of eternity, it may be the editor and not the little poem that was weighed in the balance and found wanting."


It is difficult to know and accept the materials your life experience has given you for your poetry — easier to avoid them as threatening, or question them as inadequate. Yet you will have no others. Embrace them; they are the source of your truth and power as a poet.


No one teaches us more about the value of the heart in the creation of our spiritual and creative life than John Keats in his letters. In order to develop the soul, he once wrote, it is necessary for the heart to "feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways."


The poet's difficult contract: To have heartbreaking powers, the world must first break your heart. No poet ever said, "You may enter my heart, but first wipe your feet and agree to behave."


Your highest calling is not to publish your poems or become famous for them, but to shape your experience into a vision of life. This will take as long as you have on earth. Be patient. Don't lacerate yourself. And keep in mind battle cries of poets who have come before you. Walt Whitman: "stand up for the stupid and the crazy." Adrienne Rich: "break open the locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire." Muriel Rukeyser: "we are ready for the poems of our true life."


How can we understand the world that has been given to us? From the beginning, spiritual advisers have told us the only way is to settle down and be still. The stillness that the act of writing itself requires is only the beginning of this process. Be still not only in the room where you write, but in the place where you live, coming to know it by your unknowing relationship with it. In this way, you will come to know the world.

Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry
by Wesley McNair 

Carnegie Mellon University Press

Notes on Revision, Unrevised--Jan 09

I prepared the following notes for a discussion I was to do last Tuesday night--a follow-up to a workshop done by Nora Gallagher (which I unfortunately missed).  While this has nothing to do with spiritual writing, I felt it was something worth talking about.

And, I'm sure I will go back and revise this.  Just see if I don't!

*   *   *   *   *

Like taking apart a sweater when you’ve noticed a flaw, revising is often an unavoidable task necessary to bringing the piece to true completion.  And like many learning to knit for the first time, the importance of making a swatch to determine how many stitches there will be to the inch and how many rows to establish the pattern, is often over-looked for the more inviting prospect of diving right in willy nilly.  Also, one needs to make sure they have appropriate yarns, and colors that delight.  

Granted, some poets do make notes beforehand when planning a poem, and others are more apt to dive right in as the spirit leads them.  Either way, revision will most likely be the biggest part of creating the written piece.  It is the plan, the wild yeast, the basket of yarns and small swatch – the initial spark—we build on, shaping, honing, paring, until we get it just right.

Used to be I was very anxious to get the poem out.  I’d read it, and pronounce it “done.”  Then I’d email it to Bill or Jim, pleased with the work.  Next morning I’d look it over again, and always I’d be horrified when spotting the inevitable glaring glitches—typos, ideas that ran off beyond the page, leaving no forwarding address for the reader—and I’d immediately set about patching it up, and again, too quickly, I’d sent it off, with an apology, “Sorry, that must have sounded terrible.  Here’s what I really meant.”  And it would go on like this until I was finally at peace with the poem.

So in this way, my first revisions were an inclusive sport.  Later, I began to hold off sharing my work until I’d lived with it for a while.  John Willson would always tell us in his poetry workshop, that he lived with a poem for an average of about three years before it was finally ready.  Still others argue that a poem hasn’t reached full maturity until is has fermented a good ten years.  Others maintain that the poem is done in the first two hours.  Any more that that, and you lose the spirit.

Bill Hicok has this to say:

During major revisions, when tangents pile up or I feel I've gone down a dead end, I try to pull the thing - the image or idea, the feeling - that got me going in the first place, back in front of me. I've found there's a fairly specific ideational or emotional imprint from when a poem hits critical mass, from the moment I know this is a poem I'll carry through and not just a false start. Learning to identify that point has helped me through revisions, through every kind of draft. Possibility is so compelling, all the directions we can go, that a reminder of intent, of limit -- the moment's intent, the moment's limit -- can be very liberating. I think of poems as records of moments. If I can identify what's most particular about a moment, I'll likely complete the poem.”

Over the years, when I couldn’t think of new material, I’d open my files of unfinished work (some pieces years old), and pick something that spoke to me about great possibilities, and went from there.  And now I’ve come to like that part about as much as the initial creation, maybe more so.

Revision gives me the chance to evaluation each section of the poem.  Does each line help to further the poem?  Do the line and stanza breaks act as dead ends, or invitations to continue the journey?  Do my word choices cause the reader to stumble or pause to reflect?  Very importantly, does the piece want to be read and reread?

Oftentimes the first few lines are just seeds, and can be thinned later.  Begin in the midst of the action.  Play with line breaks, metaphor and language.  Find new ways of showing the reader to picture what you want them to see.  Use fresh language, and salt sparingly (avoid killing the flavor with too many adjectives!) 

Somewhere in the middle, switch directions; avoid predictability.  Keep a sense of mystery; allow the reader to think for themselves; and maintaining a sense of wonder, circumvent the neat finish.  End on a question.  Finish with the unexpected. 

Live with your poem as long as you can.  Once you’ve worked it and feel some sort of stopping point, put it to bed for a couple of weeks.  Don’t look at it.  Force yourself not to open the folder.  Later, take it out again.  Reread it.  What stands out, or reads awkwardly?  Approach it again with renewed vigor and a fresh eye.  If necessary, repeat.

When you feel ready, share it, either in a workshop setting, or with one or two trusted friends.  Listen to their reactions without reacting.  Pencil in your notes, write down what you’ve learned about your poem that you didn’t know.  (This happens to me often.)  Most importantly, take their advice—with a grain of salt.  Some of it will be good, some a product of preconceived ideas and personal taste.  You are the parent of the piece; you ultimately will know the right time to send your child off into the world. 


Enjoy the process.  It’s how we grow as writers.  And remember, even if the work runs into a dead end, or falls of a cliff, it wasn’t all in vain.  You likely learned something along the way, and from the pieces left over, you might just have the beginnings of something new.



Monday, January 26, 2009

Late-Night Page after watching the PBS special on J. Robert Oppenheimer

Phew.  Reluctantly, I stayed up to watch PBS's "American Experience."  I come away from this, as I usually do, feeling troubled by what a tortured life this man had.  Brilliance at a cost.  Genius at a moral cost, a mental cost.  A loss of his sense of self. 

"Though shaken, Oppenheimer continued to direct the Institute for Advanced Study and to write on the relation of Western culture to science. He bought a house in the Virgin Islands and spent time sailing. In 1963 the AEC conferred on him the Enrico Fermi Award. In 1966 he resigned from the institute. He died in Princeton." (From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.)  For the full article, visit:  http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/ai/aboutopp.htm

So, tonight I wonder what dreams I'll have.  Last night left much to be desired. I confessed in my Facebook status that I wished I could revise--no, delete the recurring dreams I had last night.  Strange and unsettling enough not to mention.  

Which brings up an interesting thought:  why do I have such difficulty putting these things into written word?  

Admitting that I had dreams in which I did awful things is no easy task.  Even though, and in the dream I knew this well, that what I did, what I felt I had to do, was necessary.  It was only after having done this "task" several times, and then one time more, that it became most devastating.  The last time was all of a sudden almost unfinishable, seeming never-ending, painful, filled with deep anguish.  I was consumed with horror, disgust, pity.  And what circumstance led to these dreams?  What solid thing in my life fed this twisted energy I existed on until finally getting up to start the day, wash the dishes, make the lunches?  God only knows.

On the positive side, I feel certain I taught a good class today.  My class members seemed happy and engaged--a good report.  I love days like that, and thoroughly enjoy the people who come week after week.  

And the pain in my neck and shoulder is all but gone, if not temporarily.  I've been most uncomfortable for weeks, and to be mostly free from it is wonderful.  This afternoon, instead of getting the needed cardio in while DD was at the coffee shop with a friend, studying for midterms, I got a massage.  Last minute whim, and I got in.  Timing was perfect.  One hour spent negotiating the tangled mass of knots amassed in my deltoids, lats, traps, neck. I felt it, but it was all worth it, as it always is.  It is during and after a massage I marvel at my inability to make a commitment to keeping massage a regular part of my well-being.  That, and meditation, and yoga.

So, now I'm off to sleep it off, late as it is.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kwame Dawes Poem "New Day"

A poem by USC poet-in-residence Kwame Dawes commemorates Barack
Obama's inauguration. The eight-part poem, titled "New Day," soars
from Africa to Chicago to South Carolina, tipping its hat along the
way to Dizzy Gillespie and Abraham Lincoln.

New Day
By Kwame Dawes

1. Obama, January 1st, 2009

Already the halo of grey covers his close-cropped head.
Before, we could see the pale glow of his skull, the way
he kept it close, now the grey - he spends little time in bed,
mostly he places things in boxes or color coded trays,
and calculates the price of expectation - the things promised
all eyes now on him: the winning politician's burden.
On the day he makes his speech he will miss
the barber shop, the quick smoke in the alley, the poem
found in the remainder box, a chance to just shoot
some hoops, and those empty moments to remember
that green rice paddy where he used to sprint, a barefoot
screaming boy, all legs, going home to the pure
truth of an ordinary life, that simple place where, fatherless,
he found comfort in the wisdom of old broken soldiers.

2. How Legends Begin

This is how legends begin - the knife slitting the throat
of a hen, the blood, the callous pragmatism of eating
livestock grown for months, the myth of a father, a boat
ride into the jungle, a tongue curling then flinging
back a language alien as his skin; the rituals
of finding the middle ground, navigating a mother's
mistakes, a father's silence, a world's trivial
divisions, the meaning of color and nation-negotiator
of calm, a boy tutored in the art of profitable charm;
this is how legends begin and we will tell this, too,
to the children lined up with flags despite the storms
gathering, children who will believe in the hope of blue
skies stretched out behind the mountain of clouds;
and he will make language to soothe the teeming crowds.

3. Waking Up American, November 5, 2008

She says she never saw him as black, unlike his mother
who said she did. She says she saw him as colorless,
just a man, unlike his white mother who touched his father's
face, the deep brown earth, the glow. She says it's best
to see him as simply a human in this country that shed
long ago the pernicious sting of race, she says, and I
call her a tenderhearted dreamer, a sweet liar, I say,
a white-lie teller who would rather tell this bland lie
before admitting that walking down King Street
the morning after the votes were counted, she was
scared, but proud, so giddy with the wild beat
of her heart, knowing that her country paused
for an instant and did something grand, made a black
man president, such a miracle, such beautiful magic.

4. Punch-line

I have asked this of them year after year, a punch-line
waiting to happen with clockwork consistency -
raise your hand if you can remember a time
you believed that even you could take the presidency;
yes, you, blacks, poor, women, Latinos - was it when
you were four, five, six? And the believers all
would raise their hands. So the second question:
how many now think you have the wherewithal
to be the chief today - and up go four hands:
a dreamer, a liar, a clown, a madman. What went wrong?
How did you all mess up? Well, it's messed up now, it's gone
now that a black man has done it! Cancel class, time to hang
a poor joke; can't complain about oppression no more;
we've got to recalibrate who is the man now, that's for sure.

5. Palmetto

Of course, my home has kept its promise to itself;
the one that made Eartha Kitt, Chubby Checker, Althea Gibson,
James Brown all pack their bags, clean out their shelves,
never to look back, not once. They found their homeless songs,
like people who have forgotten where their navel-strings
were buried. We kept the promise that made those who stayed, learn
to fight with the genius of silence, the subterfuge of rings
of secret flames held close to the heart, kindling the slow burn
of resistance. But good news: despite the final state count,
we know that the upheaval of all things still brought grace
here where pine trees bleed and palmettos suck up the brunt
of blows, and so we can now hum the quiet solace
of victory with a surreptitious shuffle, a quick, quick-step
for you, Smoking Joe, Dizzy, James, and Jesse, slide, slide, now step.

6. Confession

Here is my confession, then, the one I keep inside me -
while the crowds gather in Washington, I will admit this:
it is enough that it happened, more than enough that we see
him standing there shattering all our good excuses: no, not bliss,
not some balm over the wounds that still hurt, but it is enough
to say that we saw it happen, the thing we thought wouldn't,
and we did it even if we did not want to do it. And that is tough,
yes, but it is good and grand and beautiful and new. And,
more, it is enough, no matter what comes next, that a man
who knows the blues, knows the stop-time of be-bop,
who's asked from inside out the meaning of blood and skin,
is, let's just say it, standing there, yes, standing at the top
of the world - it is enough for tomorrow; and yes he is tough
and yes he is smart, but mostly it is sweet and more than enough.

7. On Having a Cool President

He will not be the buffoon and clown; he's too cool for that.
His cool is the art of ease, the way we drain out tension;
the way we make hard seem easy, seem like it ought.
Cool is not seeing the burn in the fluid grace of execution.
Cool is knowing how to lean back and let it come,
but always ready for it to come. He will be no minstrel show
fool, but a man who shows, in the midst of chaos, unruffled calm.
Like, what-does-he-know-that-we-don't-know?
Like, I-can-be-brighter-than-you-and-still-be-down, cool.
Like some presidential cool; a cool that maybe hasn't been seen
in the White House before. You see, he is a nobody's fool,
kind of cool, the one that makes a gangsta lean look so clean,
kind of cool. That's what we have now, and to be honest,
you can call this cool what you want, me, I call it blessed.

8. Lincoln, January 1st,1863

I think now of that other Illinois man, pacing the creaking boards
of the musty mansion, cradling a nation's future in his head,
the concussion of guns continuing, the bloody hordes
of rebels like ghouls in his dreams; he, too, avoids the bed;
tomorrow the hundred days will be over, a million
souls will be free, a million pieces of property pilfered
from citizens, a million laborers worth their weight in bullion
promised a new day across the border, a million scared
owners, a million calamities, all with the flow of ink
from his pen. This is the path of the pragmatist who would
be savior, the genius act of simple war, the act to sink
an enemy, and yet hallelujahs will break out like loud
ululations of freedom. Uneasy lies the head…, he knows -
this is how our leaders are born, how we find our heroes.

And a link to Kwame Dawes reading his poem:

Morning Page--and 25 Random Things About Me

1. I've had three burns since New Year. The blistered burn on my palm hurts worst.

2. I once stopped my toddler son from walking off a high bank backwards. 

3. I won $30 the first time I played bingo with my relatives, and $30 again when my dad put my name on a "Guest Guesser" newspaper coupon when I was probably eight.

4. Billy Collins and I were "neighbors" in the contributor notes of the Atlanta Review once.

5. I once read an Old Testament reading in church when my tongue wouldn't allow me to say the name "Jethro," both times it came up in the same passage.

6. I love sashimi--especially tuna and salmon.

7. I danced in a bar in Washington D. C. when I was 17.

8. I was briefly on John Lydon's (PiL, Sex Pistols) tour bus after the concert. It was parked in front of the Vogue, if I remember correctly.

9. I stage dived (dove?) at the Dead Kennedys concert, narrowly missing Jello Biafra, who probably would have pushed me off.

10. I hurt one ankle at the first Ramones concert I went to. I hurt the other one the next night, at the second show.

11. I did 550+ cartwheels in a row, in High School, for a fundraiser.

12. I ate snails at Rainier Square, as a dare, as a High School student. I was hooked.

13. A friend and I picked up a hitchhiker on Orcas Island. 

14. Probably the very day i bought the "Thriller" cassette was the first time I drove 90 mph on the freeway in my aunt's Honda.

15. My ears have contained eight earrings at one time.

16. I have never smoked a cigarette.

17. I predicted the Ash Wednesday earthquake without meaning to. (Now, why would I have *meant* to?!)

18. I can now pick up small spiders. Just not the ones you can hear walking across the rug.

19. I will eat raw oysters, although it has been years.

20. I once held two angry German Shepherds at bay to protect my daughter, who was in a stroller. Finally a truck appeared, and ran them off the road. 

21. I went for 18 years without traveling on an airplane.

22. My son was hospitalised right after birth, on Mother's Day weekend. My daughter had her appendix removed, on Mother's Day, several years later.

23. For years I thought my middle name was Katherine, and I wrote it on my papers in grade school. I later found that it wasn't written that way on my birth certificate.

24. According to Susan, a mystic, I have been a Native American woman twice, one of those lives as a Shaman, holding a bone rattle and wearing the skin of a bear. I helped ferry souls of the dead to the other side.

25. It took me 135 hours to sew my wedding dress, and 14 yards of fabric. Untold amounts of lace.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


This is great! There seems to be a whole series of these, and it must have taken a long time to do.

Monday, January 19, 2009

American Prayer--YouTube video

This give me chills in a big way.  Wow.  Just watch, and feel the love, energy, and inspiration.

I Have A Dream

My sister-in-law just reminded me of this, and so I wanted to post it here.  

*   *   *   *   *

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his 'I Have a Dream' speech from the steps of Lincoln Memorial. (photo: National Park Service)

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating "For Whites Only". We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Morning Page, the day before Inauguration, 19 Jan 2009

How many people does it take to change a light bulb?  Apparently, someone other than me.  

For three days I've been stumbling around this room in the dark, the light of the screen the only illumination since the remaining bare bulb in the ceiling went out with a pop.  Spare bulbs are in the back room, only a few feet away.  Perhaps it's the thought of getting up on a wobbly chair that keeps me from changing the burned out bulbs, perhaps a thick dose of "I'll get to it later; I don't feel like doing it right now."  The matter is grey, so to speak--not black and white.

Outside, it's cold, about 37, and the frost is just disappearing.  I don't have the radio on right now, but I know there is electricity in the air.  Tomorrow's the big day.  And I can't wait.  This is a momentous occasion.  This weekend we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the swearing in of our first African American president.  How could we not be full of anticipation and hope?  We are moving forward, and we're ready to make some sorely needed changes to the way we've been doing things on the world stage.  Things are heating up out there, and we need to find positive ways to "temper the climate."  Obama is going to have his work cut out for him, and while I don't expect miracles (but remain open to them), I do feel strongly that he will help to set the country in the right direction.  

At the same time, I'm worried beyond belief.  I've been worried since last February, well before I admitted for the first time to a long-time friend, that an attempt could be made toward assassination.  (I'm even having trouble typing the word.)  This is the first time I've actually put my fear into print.  And I know I'm not the only one.  There seems to be a collective holding of breath out there, a fear that some one or more people might strive to stop the positive flow of that forward-moving energy, as it took place with King, and others like him.  I find myself breathing "please God, don't let it happen, keep Obama and his family safe for years to come."  The same supplication I make for my own family and friends.  "Please, keep them safe and strong.  Keep them healthy and give them your positive guidance and energy."  

After a reading I did last Thursday at a wonderful place called Soul Food Books, I was drawn to the beautiful stones they had.  The ones I walked away with were Fluorite, and a little chunk of meteorite.  The woman who sold them to me said that Fluorite helps bring trust in the Universe.  The stone, smoothed into a sphere, felt good in my hand, and I swear I could feel some energy buzzing as I held it.  Maybe that sounds weird, but I'm willing to go with that feeling.  We could do with a little smooth stone in our pocket to grasp, to help keep us grounded when things are weird out there.

What does this have to do with the current here and now?  Grounding, focus, meditation, healing thoughts, a plea and a trust in the direction of the future.  That ultimately things will be as they are intended to be.  Admittedly, that's hard to do.  It takes practice.  It takes a little "going inward" and also a good bit of "going outward," or positive communication with others.  And if it takes a little rock in the pocket to remind me of that, so be it.

Perhaps my prayer should be one of "Thank you" for the way things are, in this moment.  "Thank you" for this change, for the collective power of the desire to make things better in the world.  "Thank you" for the chance to make a difference, because every little step adds up to a giant leap.  And, in my opinion, is just what's happening right now.  Right here.

The light bulbs?  Yes, I'm taking care of it now.  Let the light shine.  Outside, it's a sunny day.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Martin Luther King Jr.

A wonderful photo

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Nighttime Page, 17 Jan. 09

Just finished watching "The Green Mile." I'm not sure what to say about it, except that it was excellent.  It's the kind of movie I'm a sucker for.  It's got miracles, suspense, deep connections, and yet another twist to the play between good and evil.  Amazing.  I would own this movie.

Another amazing thing--evil backwards is live.  Evil is also vile.  Scrambled, it's veil, or the name Levi.  Am I missing anything?

I was supposed to go to a party tonight.  But, with DH and DS gone on a boy scout winter camping trip, and the twinge of a stomach bug, I decided to stay home with DD.  And this is how I came to see the movie.  DD and I were in the video store, and she picked it out.  It was one she'd seen scenes from at youth group.  Before I put it in the player, I was on the phone with DA, telling her we were about to watch it, and she told me it was depressing.  Having just seen it, I can't exactly call it that.  More thought-provoking.  

Okay, I'm not getting very far here.  It's late, as usual.  I might try for some real Morning Pages tomorrow, even though it's "no computer day" in our household.  When the guys are away...  It'll also be a day to go into the big city, do a little mousing around, and maybe go purse-shopping.  

A poem by Obama, as it first appeared in Occidental Weekly:


Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the 
Flim and flam of the world, since
Things have been easy for me; 
I stare hard at his face, a stare
That deflects off his brow; 
I’m sure he’s unaware of his
Dark, watery eyes, that
Glance in different directions,
And his slow, unwelcome twitches,
Fail to pass.
I listen, nod,
Listen, open, till I cling to his pale, 
Beige T-shirt, yelling,
Yelling in his ears, that hang
With heavy lobes, but he’s still telling
His joke, so I ask why
He’s so unhappy, to which he replies...
But I don’t care anymore, cause
He took too damn long, and from
Under my seat, I pull out the 
Mirror I’ve been saving; I’m laughing, 
Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face
To mine, as he grows small,
A spot in my brain, something
That may be squeezed out, like a 
Watermelon seed between
Two fingers.
Pop takes another shot, neat,
Points out the same amber
Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and
Makes me smell his smell, coming
From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem
He wrote before his mother died,
Stands, shouts, and asks
For a hug, as I shrink, my 
Arms barely reaching around
His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; ’cause
I see my face, framed within
Pop’s black-framed glasses
And know he’s laughing too.

This next bit comes from the BBC News:

Poem sent for Obama inauguration

Wales' national poet Gillian Clarke has written a poem marking Barack Obama's inauguration as US president.

Clarke said she was "delighted" to have been commissioned to pen the poem for the historic occasion.

Obama will become the first African American to hold the post when he is installed as the 44th president.

Clarke, whose work is studied for GCSE and A level exams, said she had been inspired by the reaction of pupils in Birmingham, England, to the election.

The poet originally from Cardiff but now living in Ceredigion explained: "A few days after his election I was performing in front of 2,000 schoolchildren in Birmingham.

"Academi's message that they wanted me to write a poem for Obama came through and I was introduced by the chief examiner as the National Poet of Wales who will write a poem for Obama.

NEW YEAR, 2009

Venus in the arc of the young moon

is a boat the arms of a bay,

the sky clear to infinity

but for the trailing gossamer

of a transatlantic plane.

The old year and the old era dead,

pushed burning out to sea

bearing the bones of heroes, tyrants,

ideologues, thieves and deceivers

in a smoke of burning money.

The dream is over. Glaciers will melt.

Seas will rise to swallow golden islands.

Somewhere a volcano may whelm a city,

earth shake its skin like an old horse,

a hurricane topple a town to rubble.

Yet tonight, under the cold beauty

of the moon and Venus, something like hope begins,

as if times can turn, the world change course,

as if truth can speak, good men come to power,

and words have meaning again.

Maybe black-hearted boys in love with death

won't blow themselves and us to smithereens.

Maybe guns will fall silent, the powerful

cease slaughtering the weak, the rich

will not gorge as the poor starve.

Hope spoke the word 'Yes', the word 'we', the word 'can',

and a thousand British teenagers at Poetry Live

rose to their feet in a single yell of joy -

black, white, Christian, Muslim, Jew,

faithful and faithless. We are all in this together.

Ie. gallwn ni. (Yes, we can)

"Immediately all the children stood up cheering and hugging each other and I was astounded.

"If 15-year-old kids get excited about Barack Obama winning the election, then it gives me this great feeling of hope, a hope that we can all share in.

"It is not just that we believe he's a good man or an eloquent man, but that we somehow need him to be a man who appreciates language and truth, and will make all the lies of the last eight years disappear.

"We're on his side and we'll try to make it work.

"We're all black now. And it's taught us all - from schoolchildren in Birmingham to poets in Wales - that if you're black, you can do it; if you're a woman, you can do it; if you're young, you can do it. And if you're Welsh, we can do it."

Academi, which promotes literature in Wales, has sent the poem to president-elect Obama along with another in Welsh from the Welsh-language Children's Laureate Ifor ap Glyn.

Clarke is the third National Poet of Wales, a role established in 2005 by Academi with Arts Council of Wales Lottery funding.

Gwyneth Lewis was the first incumbent, followed by Professor Gwyn Thomas.

Clarke's work is studied in schools across the UK .

From November 2008 to February 2009 she will have performed her work in front of over 100,000 schoolchildren as part of the Poetry Live! events.

In February she will read and discuss her work with 900 English students in Dubai.

And finally, an article about Elizabeth Alexander, who will read her poetry at the inauguration:

Elizabeth Alexander, Obama Inauguration Poet, "Completely Thrilled"

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Elizabeth Alexander was a toddler in a baby stroller when her parents took her to hear Martin Luther King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington.

Now, it's Alexander's turn to move the nation.

Alexander, professor of African-American studies at Yale University, was chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to compose and read a poem for his inauguration on Jan. 20.

"I'm completely thrilled and deeply, deeply honored," Alexander said Thursday.

Alexander's mother is a historian specializing in African-American women's history at George Washington University. Her father was a presidential civil rights adviser and secretary of the Army.

"The civil rights movement was fully alive in our home," Alexander said.

Attending King's 1963 speech was an iconic moment for the family.

"That story was always a part of family stories that were told as a way of thinking about the importance of being civic, the importance of looking forward, the importance of having visionary leaders, the importance of involving yourself with the community, the importance of recognizing the historical moment and historical possibilities," Alexander said.

Alexander said her parents are thrilled at her selection.

"This is an incomparable thrill to them in the way that Obama's presidency is an especially potent and powerful thing for African-Americans in their 70s who have devoted their lives to progress," Alexander said. "To be a part of it, I almost can't imagine it myself."

Alexander, who is 46 and married with two children, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005 for her collection "American Sublime." Her other books include "The Venus Hottentot," "Body of Life" and "Antebellum Dream Book."

Last year, she won the $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize.

Alexander will be only the fourth poet to read at a presidential swearing in. Robert Frost read for President John F. Kennedy, while Maya Angelou and Miller Williams read at President Clinton's inaugurations.

"I think what I hope to symbolize and demonstrate is the important role that arts and literature can play in this moment when the country is thinking so keenly about moving forward and coming together," Alexander said.

Alexander acknowledged the challenge before her. She said she does not start with a message in mind, likening the process to a radio antenna in which she listens for the right language.

"You're always trying to catch a rhythm," she said. "It's something I will be chipping away at every day."

Alexander is friends with Obama from her days when they were on the faculty at the University of Chicago in the 1990s.

"That friendship makes this opportunity all the more special," she said.

Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, welcomed her selection.

"Elizabeth Alexander is a superb choice for the Obama inauguration: She is from Washington, she represents Obama's generation, and she has written about the civil rights conflict and other historical events that have shaped the character of this country," Swenson said. "At the same time, her intense personal vision reveals the commonplace life illuminated from startling new angles _ as good poetry always does."

Former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins said Alexander faces a tall order.

"I don't envy her," Collins wrote in an e-mail. "Such poems are nearly impossible to bring off. Because of the heaviness of the subject the risk is that you will end up under it rather than on top. I wish her well and I'm certainly glad Obama is making room for a poet."


Associated Press writer Nancy Benac in Washington contributed to this story.

And with that, I'm off to bed!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Midday Thought-- "Instant Snow?"

I'm wondering about an ad I saw about ordering snow...  

"Instant Snow Free Ship" is says.  "As seen on TV, Buy 1 Get 1 Free Makes Fluffy White Snow" from SnowInSecond.com

Wow.  I am really wondering about that.  We had some, and after a month it is almost gone.  You'd almost never guess we had any, unless you look closely at the ditches where the sun doesn't shine, and the great grey gravel-studded piles in parking lots.  There's snow there, you just have to look.  And I'm sure the folks from Montana to New England would love to get rid of some of theirs, along with the cold.  

I'm thinking that my curiosity is going to overcome me, and I'll end up visiting the site, just to see what the scoop is.  I'll let you know.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Nighttime Page, 13 Jan. 2009

Wow, it's strange to be doing the 200*9* thing.  I mean that with an emphasis on the nine.  Crazy thing is, now I'm essentially done with the twelve weeks, I've dropped off writing daily, or almost daily.  And, I'm missing it.  Again, what am I doing with my time?!?

Blogging.  Adding photos to my other blogs.  I did write a poem, and then took it to workshop last night.  It needs more work, but that's okay.  It's so new (as I say when I read a poem at a reading that's very recently written)--it's so new, it could burn a hole in the paper!  Usually I sit on poems for awhile before sharing but, as I'm not writing enough these days, I brought what I had.  The title, as usual, sucks.  I'm not great at titles.  Well, to be fair, I have my moments of greatness with regards to titles, but it isn't a consistent thing.  

Question--in these tough economic times, do I want to get a nice bag with my Christmas money, or do I want to save up for an SLR camera, or better yet, a mac laptop?  I went to Macy's three times in two weeks and gazed at Fossil bags.  And my current red number is okay, but leaves a lot to be desired.  My birthday's coming up, and I might wait... or, I might give in to my original plan and just get the bag.  Ah, consumerism.  

I'm gonna go to bed and read some poems.  But first, I want to find a quickie to post here.  BRB.

Ah, here it is:

The Arrival of the Bee Box

I ordered this, clean wood box

Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.

I would say it was the coffin of a midget

Or a square baby

Were there not such a din in it.


The box is locked, it is dangerous.

I have to live with it overnight

And I can't keep away from it.

There are no windows, so I can't see what is in there.

There is only a little grid, no exit.


I put my eye to the grid.

It is dark, dark,

With the swarmy feeling of African hands

Minute and shrunk for export,

Black on black, angrily clambering.


How can I let them out?

It is the noise that appalls me most of all,

The unintelligible syllables.

It is like a Roman mob,

Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!


I lay my ear to furious Latin.

I am not a Caesar.

I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.

They can be sent back.

They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.


I wonder how hungry they are.

I wonder if they would forget me

If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.

There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,

And the petticoats of the cherry.


They might ignore me immediately

In my moon suit and funeral veil.

I am no source of honey

So why should they turn on me?

Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.


The box is only temporary.


--Sylvia Plath



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