You can’t win if you don’t enter!

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And that’s just one of the important life lessons I’ve taught my children. The other two are “Life isn’t fair” and “Air is the greatest enemy of white wine.” All three lessons are key to a successful life, don’t you think?

Sometimes a poem or story takes on a life of its own and almost, but not quite, writes itself. That happened to one of my pieces recently. I call that kind of writing effort “soaring” and the rest of it “plodding.” Both are important, and we must keep slogging through the mud to get to the beautiful ocean. Sometimes the universe gives us wings and off we go, above the power lines and into the smiling face of the moon. For me it’s always been a mix. I never know what’s going to happen when I start my writing time.

After completing a few drafts of my poem, “Carousel,” I showed it to a reader I trust. He gave me one simple suggestion, and I knew it was perfect for the poem. I worked with it for awhile and finally decided it was ready to be set free. Nothing is ever finished, you see, it just gets to be the time to set it free.

I heard about Todd Boss’ project for the St. Paul Union Depot and was intrigued. The idea was to create Motion Poems (Poems made into compelling videos) to be projected across the entire facade of the Depot building. The theme was “Arrivals and Departures.”

My poem is about a garish carved horse, doomed to travel the round forever, never winning the race, never arriving or departing. It struck me that “Carousel” would be a perfect fit for this project. I sent it off hopefully.

Months later I was told that my poem was one of 11 finalists for the project. I was extremely happy to be included. The next phase was for the film makers to choose the poems they wanted to work with, and that would serve to eliminate most of the finalists. In April I found out that my poem was one of only four chosen to become an “Arrivals and Departures” poem.

It felt like I had won the lottery, without money, but who cares? I was and am totally thrilled about this huge honor — to work with film makers and the once-in-a-lifetime experience to see my work projected onto a huge building. I believe there will be some official announcement at the May 22 airing of the current set of Motion Poems at the Walker Art Center, and the projection at the St. Paul Union Depot is scheduled for the beginning of October. It should be quite amazing.

So, dear writers and poets, keep writing and don’t give up. You never know when you’ll soar. And you’ll never know which of the pieces you set free into the world will come back to you with great rewards.

 

 

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So you want to be a writer?

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I didn’t always want to be a writer. When I was little I wanted to be a priest. Then I found out that girls couldn’t be priests, and that pretty much ended my religious vocation idea. I wanted to be a famous artist until I realized how hard it was to become famous.

I floated through a number of jobs until I finally realized that I could actually make a living doing something I’ve always loved to do… write. I got a job as a receptionist at a graphic arts company that was filled with zany and creative people. Since nobody else liked the writing part of putting together catalogs and ads, I happily took on that responsibility I built my skimpy portfolio one little piece after another. It wasn’t great work but it was something in print.

After the owner (who had an irritating tendency to grab my ass from time to time) drove the business into the ground, I took my portfolio and began interviewing with advertising agencies. At Roth Graham, I was interviewed by the late and beloved Ralph Bauer, along with freelance art director Judith Connor. Apparently they saw something hopeful in my work and I was hired.

I still remember driving to work each morning thinking, “Gee, I’m a real writer!” It was a thrill to help people sell goods and services. I especially loved producing radio ads. With sound effects and talents like Patrick Coyle and Sue Scott, anything can happen on radio.

After working at the agency for nine years, I started my own business and wrote for hundreds of clients in a huge variety of industries. It was fun and lucrative. Every new client and subject matter were challenges and I loved it. When times got tough and the work started drying up, I shifted my focus to publishing and teaching.

Throughout all this, I always wrote on my own as well. Poetry is my great love, with creative nonfiction a close second. I began publishing poems and essays and self-published my first poetry book. I applied for and received residency fellowships where I completed a full length collection of poems as well as the first draft of two nonfiction books. I was dedicated. I sent things out and followed up. I did my work and never quit. That might make me more stubborn, but certainly no better than anyone else.

I meet a lot of people who want to be writers. I ask them, “What do writers do that other people don’t do?”

That’s right. They write. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. If you want to write, do it. Read, too, to know what’s out there. Keep writing and you will discover your own voice and style. Don’t be like me. Write every day if you can. Even it it’s just for a few minutes.

Remember, it can’t happen without you.

Some tips on publishing… and a new class

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Do you want to be published — or more widely published? Are you confused or overwhelmed about when, how or where to send your poems for publication? When you step up to the mic, do you feel like you are connecting well with your audience?

I’ve probably attended thousands of poetry readings over the years and have always noticed that some poets — even well known poets — do not do their poems justice when they read them. After bleeding all over a page to create a successful poem, I believe that poem deserves a great presentation from the poet.

That’s why I designed a new class for the Loft called “To Publish an Present.” In this class we will use the workshop format to fine-tune poems in structured critique setting. I’ll deliver an extensive list of publishing resources. We’ll also offer some coaching and have guest presenters share their insights with us. I’m excited to lead this class because I think many people will appreciate the results. I’m hoping the Loft will offer the class next summer.

In the meantime, I’ll offer the following:

Check out these listings for publications that might like your work:

newpages.com, pw.org/literary-magazines, everywritersresource.com/topliterarymagazines, duotrope.com, andromeda.rutgers.edu (the rutgers site lists those that accept electronic submissions, which we love because it’s so fast and easy)

Some quick tips:

  • If you have time, take at least a quick read through the current issue of the lit mag to see if your work might fit, keeping in mind that editors often change.
  • Read the guidelines. The fastest way to get rejected is to not abide by the rules. If they want a bio, send a bio. If they don’t mention it, don’t.
  • Make sure your work is spell checked, neat and clean. If you don’t respect your work, editors won’t either.
  • One poem per page (unless it’s a multiple page poem – then put your last name and “p.2” on the second page. Editors’ desks can be piled with papers. You don’t want any of yours to be lost.
  • Name, address, city/state/zip, phone and email on upper right side of your poem. I place it there so that my title and poem stands out from my personal information. I want editors to see my poem first.
  • Nothing fancy. A clean type face only. No graphics, no photos, no explanations. Clean and professional.
  • Multiple submissions are usually fine. Worst (best?) case scenario: Two pubs want your poem. That has never, ever happened to me, but if it does, you choose the best one and write the other a nice note saying that you hadn’t heard from them and placed your poem elsewhere. But check first to see if they take previously published work. Then you’re good on both counts.
  • If submitting by snail mail, always include a self-addressed stamped envelope. (SASE)
  • Don’t overthink. I just shoot out my best work. 5 poems to 5 different mags at a time. Unless the issue has a specific theme, it’s all a crap shoot anyway. Set aside a few hours a month to do this. If you do this, you will be rewarded. Guaranteed.

Other ideas:

-Consider subscribing to Poets & Writers magazine. There is a section of classifieds at the back of the magazine that lists publications that are actively looking for work.

-Contests: We can drop a bundle entering contests. They are extremely competitive and often, I think, publications have their “favorites” to choose from already. I wouldn’t suggest it unless you know you have a drop-dead poem or collection that you have worked a long time (preferably with an editor you trust.)

-Self-Publishing is a completely honorable way to get your work in front of some readers. Do it well, though. Hire an editor, a book designer who knows his or her stuff and will handle the printing properly. You can have a chapbook or book to be proud of the rest of your life.

-It’s good to have a healthy list of publications under your belt before going the book route. Gives you credibility.

Pre-writing and After-writing

Many writers find themselves involved in pesky pre-writing and after-writing habits. We work for years on line breaks, stanza breaks, metaphor, musicality and more, but often overlook these common pitfalls. It can be frustrating to have a problem that is invisible. Some writers never even know they have this problem. Not knowing is a problem in itself, isn’t it? Do you know what I mean?

The first paragraph of this post is an example of pre-writing.

Think of pre-writing as clearing your throat. It’s what we write before we get to the “good stuff.” An effective way to identify a poem’s beginning is to ask yourself, “Where does the energy start?” Or, “Where does the story or action begin?” Those are usually good clues. Sometimes we feel protective of what we wrote first, because that helped us get into the poem. It’s great that you were helped. Get rid of it. Its goal has been achieved and now it needs to be cut. Be ruthless but be careful. Sometimes what looks like pre-writing is part of a different poem. You might want to save your cuts for later.

Think of after-writing as a salesman who can’t stop selling. Resist the urge to tie everything up neatly in a perfect bow. Readers enjoy poems that do not tell them everything. Allow the reader to come along with you in your journey through the poem. Then let them experience the ending — don’t rub their noses in it. Readers are smart. Especially readers of poetry. If you are a public poet, your readers are the most important people to your success in your craft. Respect them by giving your poem a sharp look at the end. Is it too predictable? Is there anything cliche about it? Are you repeating what you just said? Is the last part “outside” of the poem? If you cut your last line or two, would it be stronger?

The after-writing habit might be even more difficult to identify than pre-writing, but practice makes perfect. The more you are aware of these two, the more often you will notice them, which will lead to tighter, more powerful poems. This last paragraph is after-writing.

Riding (and writing) through the fear

Afraid? Of course we are. Every time we get on a motorcycle. No rider – or writer – worth her salt is cocky enough to not be scared. The daunting blank page, the dangerous open road. It’s only natural to be afraid of the unknown territory that lies before us. It’s what we do with the fear that makes the difference.

It was August again. Time for that long ride to Sturgis, South Dakota, and another anniversary of Bike Week. Since 1938 Sturgis has been an exuberant celebration of bikes, bikers and the motorcycling experience. If you plan in advance, you can camp or rent a room – both at inflated prices. Some activities include new motorcycle demos, races, rides, concerts, competitions, food and merchandise vendors, tattoo parlors, T-shirts, sex toys, vests, chaps and shopping for everything you can imagine that’s made out of leather. You can get married in Sturgis – at the base of Bear Butte or on your motorcycle in your veil and thong, if you like. Sky’s the limit in Sturgis. At least during Bike Week. At sturgis.com there’s a timer that counts down how many days, hours, minutes and seconds you have to wait until the next rally begins. Such anticipation.

If you trailer your motorcycle, you run the risk of being scoffed at by the traditionalists. If you rise to the challenge and ride, you have a profound experience ahead of you. The kind of experience that inspired the Harley-Davidson slogan, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

Let’s say you decide to ride it to South Dakota. First of all, you will need to accept the fact that you are invisible to the folks who drive pickups with one hand while on the phone. And I mean totally invisible. The kind of invisible that Louis Jenkins writes about in his poem, “Invisible.” …”At times we are caught in a warp of space or time and, for a moment, vanish.”

There’s also road kill, frost heave, wildlife and road construction to negotiate. Not unlike writing, riding motorcycle is always a risk. You’re about as safe as a raw egg on a spoon. Why, then, even attempt this foolishness? To buck the system or pursue our true identities? To escape the bonds of our gender roles? To learn something? Is riding a sensual act, a foolhardy one, an artistic pursuit or all of the above? What inspires us to taunt society and fate?

Everyone who rides understands the connection between motorcycling and the natural world. You’re out there, with nothing between you and the sky, except maybe your helmet. Aside from the occupational hazard of bugs on your teeth, and this because you’ve been grinning again, you’re in the position to experience things that people in cars never see, hear or smell. Even the crustiest of hard core bikers can wax poetic about the fresh scent of pine on an early morning ride through the breathtaking beauty of the Black Hills, when the sun inches up above a stand of trees, spilling golden light into the valley.

As a writer and rider, you notice the surprises nature doles out so generously –a sudden ten-degree drop in temperature as you descend alongside a foggy river bottom, the pungent smell of manure on a plowed field, the heady scent of approaching rain, sighting herons, wildflowers, egrets, wild turkeys and pheasants on the side of the road. The magnificence of a bald eagle eyeing you from on high. All of this is writing fuel.

And fear is a funny thing. It can serve to heighten your senses, touching you and changing you, if you are open to it. Fear can actually make your riding safer and writing stronger. The trick is to let just enough – but not too much – of the fear in.

Is getting to your writing destination the most important thing? Or, is it the journey that brings you back to writing time after time? The process of being a writer leads us through the fear into long days of sunshine and smooth ribbons of road that reward us with depth and discovery.

Now, listen closely and you’ll hear the musical tink of metal cooling in the garage. The engine is at rest. The journey is in process.

RIDING MOTORCYCLE

Every ride reminds me of death.

The two of us, a drunken pickup, errant deer

something explodes, slow flight after impact

a flash of time and then the fall, a branch

in the throat, a leg turned wrong

darkened shreds of skin –

 

Let this machine pass powerfully through me.

My body is the engine

his body is the fuel.

We rule our gears and mirrors and chrome.

Our leather stories are mortal sketches.

We swallow the horizon.

Mother Poems

It’s been five years now since my mom died. I’m still writing about her and that great mystery beyond life as we know it. These poems are new and unpublished, but “Mother” will appear in the 2014 St. Paul Almanac.

FIVE YEARS LATER

I thought, anybody can write a poem and then I thought oh good, this opens it up, except does a poem come from any body? Or does it descend with a drop of rain and sink into the sodden earth and run off into the raging river?

I thought, that last must be a poem of anger. A poem of love resides in the body, resting comfortably on memory foam. A poem of love knows the holy. It touches the face of God, whose countenance is portrayed in the clouds.

I thought, why is God always up? That must be an optimistic poem. One that looks to the sun, on the bright side. I would write a poem, but I am not anybody, I am somebody, and my body has not always been my friend. When my mother was monitoring it, which she saw as her solemn duty, I wanted to fly on wings of poems to defy her vision of me, which I did. She never got to say goodbye.

I thought of an awful poem I might have written of her in the hospital after the operation, how the doctor had insisted, his gloved hands raised in supplication. The poem would include blood, too much blood to close the incision, so she lay there in her body with her stomach open for days and I don’t even know if they ever closed her up and I can’t even think of it five years later.

I thought of the silly things we did. Dancing to Harry Belafonte in the dining room. Smearing livid lipsticks from Avon. Taking the streetcar downtown to the Golden Rule to try on hats. Big brimmed hats, felt hats, straw hats, hats with veils and ridiculous feathers, bows and bands, hats that we tied under our chins, laughing until tears ran down our cheeks until I thought we’d bust a gut.

TO SAVE A LIFE

There is no way to save a life.

Preserve the taste of it in juice and pulp

in a bell jar with a lid and a ring,

like hazed mornings on school days

when each seed spiced something new.

Strain against the fencing.

Break out like seedlings that double

with the ambition of a field of weeds.

Grow something to be held within.

Something smooth and opaque that the sun

interprets as gemstone. Something red

as sunrise in the lush valley or glossy

lips in an old photograph.

Pick a time to be robust.

Anticipate a life to be savored

and saved to be

remembered.

AND, IN THE END

“And, in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

                                                                                           —Paul McCartney

Being alive is so uncertain.

There is no way to be sure.

Not about today, not about tomorrow,

not about much of anything.

We know nothing more about anyone

else than we know about ourselves.

We think, we feel, we go on

to whatever it is we believe we are living.

The living part happens until the end,

which will happen to us all.

So, within the yardstick of time that is our measure,

within what might be called our soul, our spirit,

there is something for which there is

no other name, so we call it love.

Love is what moves us from darkness

to constellations. Love is what flows

from the flower, the sweet and the pungent.

All rhythm, love, a feather breeze, love,

an August eve, love, dream water, love,

blue music, love, like food.

And, from this side of being alive,

the love we give is the love

we are always a part of.

That tree, that particular

blade of grass,

that breathtaking beauty,

in grateful abundance.

MOTHER

She is waiting by the front door.

Her wings whir, invisible as the August breeze.

She hovers, almost motionless there,

held in place by air. The oaks are singing

tangled songs through serrated leaves,

asphalt appears liquid under the harsh

beat of the sun. The air is metallic.

I am just behind the screen,

standing as still as I can. I want

to take her in my cupped hands

and keep her with me. I want to feed her

tidbits of sugar and wafer, the holy

communion of our lives, our bodies

inside and outside of our souls,

hopelessly connected, two full moons,

circling each other in endless flight. .

 

 

 

 

Writing-related favorites

The subject of writing has inspired some amazing writing. Here are some of my favorites, not in any particular order. Let’s keep adding to the list. Share your favorite quote or short piece about writing in the comment section below. Okay, we’ll make it a contest. The one I like the best gets a free book!

NOT WRITING

     –Jane Kenyon

A wasp rises to its papery

nest under the eaves

where it daubs

at the gray shape

but seems unable

to enter its own house.

“The poet lights the light and fades away. But the light goes on and on.”

     — Emily Dickenson

“The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

     –Wendell Berry

“…the act of writing something captures it in some secure spot of the mind, stops up the holes through which so many of our observations and ideas leak out…”

     –Dorothy Bryant

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

     –Thomas Mann

“When we read, we start at the beginning and continue until we reach the end. When we write, we start in the middle and fight our way out.”

     –Vicky Karp

“The act of writing is the successive discovery of cumulative epiphanies in the self’s encounter with the world.”

     –William Stafford

“Touching another person’s heart is what poetry is all about.”

     –Ted Kooser

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW TO BE A POET (excerpt)

     –Gary Snyder

all you can know about animals as persons.

the names of trees anf flowers and weeds.

the names of stars and the movement of planets

and the moon.

your own six senses, with a watchful elegant mind.

How do you know if a poem is done?

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That is a tough one. I don’t believe that a poem is ever “done.” Like any work of art, you could tinker with it forever. But we don’t have forever. We want to get our work into the world within a reasonable length of time. Which returns us to the question. How do we know when to set our poems free?

Poet Larry Colker says, “In the best cases it is when the hair on my neck stands up when I read it. In most cases it is when the poem says what I wanted to say and it is as concise as I can make it. In most cases what I end up saying in a poem has only a thin connection to what I started out to say, to what I thought I wanted to say.”

That last part interests me most. In my classes, I like to start a writing session by asking, “How many people don’t know what they are doing?” After a show of hands, I add, “Good. You are in the perfect position to create something.” It’s a technique that takes the pressure off and gives the poet permission to go anywhere in the writing. In my opinion, that’s how the most gorgeous poems are made. They may not come out whole all at once, but the little gems within give us the inspiration to revise and craft our work.

How do I know when a poem is done? I’ll share some of my personal guidelines with you:

  • When I feel thrilled. I don’t have a lot of hair on my neck but it’s the same kind of thing.
  • When the energy for the poem has dissipated.
  • If, after I have put the poem aside for a time, I return to it and it feels whole.
  • After I have looked sharply at each line and each word, removing what is not needed and adding what was missing. The same goes for the title.
  • When it simply feels done. (This one takes a lot of practice.)

I always remember two things that my former teacher Michael Dennis Browne taught me. Number one: Sometimes you must slay your little darlings. Number two: It was the best I could do at the time.

I’ll end this with more thought from Colker. He says, “I realize that one’s poetry is a reflection of one’s identity, and by identity, I mean our personal mythology about what makes us who we are. And one doesn’t always get at it at the outset. Of course we imitate others at the outset. But one of the greatest pleasures I have as host of a regular reading series is witnessing a poet coming into his or her own unique voice over time.”

We don’t have forever, dear writers, but if we’re very lucky, we do have time.

Revision Decisions

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Think of revision as an opportunity to approach your writing with all the skill and experience you’ve achieved by now. To re-vision is a joy. Even when you feel like you are plodding through muck with cement shoes, know that you are following in the footsteps of every writer you ever admired.

Here are some highlights from a double session class I’ll be teaching at The Loft, May 4 and May 11, 1-5 pm. To join us contact Loft Education at 612-379-8999 or enroll online at loft.org.

Remember, these are simply guidelines. No rules are hard and fast, but it’s good to learn the rules before you break them:

  1. Start strong. A compelling first line, be it unusual or visual or sensual, welcomes your reader into your poem or other writing.
  2. Patterns are pleasing. You can use sound patterns, almost rhyme, a bit of repetition and alliteration, to name a few of the tools at our disposal.
  3. Use your five senses. Train yourself to use more than just sight. Is there a scent of lemon? Rotting leaves? Is there a swoosh of a bird’s wing? A feather of a breeze? You get the idea.
  4. Be vivid and specific. Your work comes alive with tension and emotion. This is the old “show, don’t tell” and adjectives are not your friends.
  5. In poetry, stanza breaks let us take leaps through time or space, to give the reader a little surprise. We don’t want to lose our reader, so make sure your leap isn’t too reckless.
  6. Line breaks, oh line breaks. Poets spend months considering line breaks. Long line or short line, breaks build the shape of the poem. The first and last words of the line get extra notice. Breaking a line in the middle of a phrase is sometimes very effective. Never stop experimenting with line breaks.
  7. Read your work out loud and listen. Is there music? Is it clunky in places?
  8. Eliminate “prewriting” and adjectives, unless they are surprising or quirky. Prewriting is all that blather you put down before the action of your poem or prose begins. Dump it.
  9. Use your skills but don’t think too much. Let the work tell you what shape and form and tone it needs to take. Be honest. Be generous. Be emotional. Be present in your writing.
  10. Phrases: If you have heard it before, it’s trite. Find a new way to say it… if you need it at all.
  11. Respect your reader. Readers are smart. Resist the urge to tie up the ending neatly with a little bow. Instead, bring your readers along with you and give them the little gift of pointing them to the ending. If you’ve done your job well, they will meet you at the end.
  12. Your writing will never desert you — even if you desert it for a time. It will always be there for you, never judging, never being angry, even if you’ve left it alone in a dark room without food or water or shape or sound. It will always accept you and, I believe, even love you.

Why is it so hard to write?

The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.

Aha! That quote by Robert Frost lets me off the hook! It’s not my fault that I’m not writing — it’s my brain’s fault!

According to writing coach Roseanne Bane, we are not “being weak willed, thin skinned, oversensitive, under-disciplined or lazy” when we can’t seem to write. Instead, our brain is not functioning the way we need it to.

Rather than to get into the neurology of the brain, (check Roseanne’s new book, Around the Writer’s Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer’s Resistance), let’s focus on some practical ways to move ourselves into our writing.

  1. Don’t let it hamper you. As I have been known to say, I don’t believe in writer’s block. Never have, never will. To me it’s merely an excuse not to write. If you are feeling blocked, this is a perfect time for denial. Grab your favorite fast pen… and go!
  2. Be strong. Know that you can break through this. Grab a few words from one of your favorite poets and start there. Start with the words “here I am…” Start anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you start as long as you start.
  3. Keep going. This is the part about allowing yourself to write crap. Writing crap does not make you a bad writer. Every piece of writing is good because it brings you along to the next level. There is no wasted writing. At the very least, it gets you oiled up for the next amazing thing you will write.
  4. Be aware of the process. What are you doing? You are working on some cool writing. That is all. Forget about that deadline or that book you long for. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Just be there with this writing. Just be there with it now.
  5. Have some fun. This frees up your brain to be creative. Write something weird. Write something from a zany dream or cartoon. Strange is good. Who knows…. you might find a way to work your weirdness into a poem or story. Nobody can be odd like you can be odd. Enjoy it!
  6. Read and relax. If you want to write good poetry, read poets you love. If you want to write good fiction, read good fiction. It’s okay to get ideas from other people. There’s precious little that’s unique, you know.
  7. Give yourself the gift of time. I know, I know, there are always emails to answer and Facebook and Twitter and even the bathroom to clean. And when, may I ask, did any of these things get to be more important than the drive you have to write? Who is in charge of your priorities?
  8. And, remember, if you are very lucky, there will be a next time. Cherish the moment. Be kind to yourself but don’t let that stop you from doing your work. Don’t let go of that old fashioned work ethic.
  9. Ask for help. You don’t have to do this alone. The buddy system is one idea. Make a pact with a writer friend. Keep a file of ways to help each other, such as a variety of writing prompts.

And so, my friends and colleagues, don’t let your brain get the best of you. You have some great writing ahead. Now get to work.