An unintentional guide

After I pulled poems together with a central focus last week, I reminded myself to print some notes I’d written to keep myself centered, as well as a conversation I had with some fellow poets on social media last year that I cut and pasted into a Word document for future reference. I printed these documents then read through them, and noticed as part of the conversation the name of a friend who passed away suddenly last year. It was a bittersweet reminder: this poet was a part of my writing life. We always made sure to connect at AWP if we were both attending, and kept up with each other on social media. Like me, she lived in the Midwest. Snowstorms would often reach her state before they reached mine, so I knew what was coming if she mentioned it on Facebook. She was someone I not only respected but admired, and her passing was and still is a loss.

She was one of three friends I lost last year who were fellow writers or professors. No matter what their calling, they were people who taught me how to live a good life not only intellectually but spiritually. When I started publishing, they encouraged me, and I not only read their work but watched how they navigated the world as writers, hoping to learn something I might have missed. My fellow teaching colleague who left this world last year had an office right down the hall from mine. A lifelong learner, his office and home were filled with books. If he knew someone was interested in a certain subject, whether they were a child or adult, he give them books to aid in their discovery. He often surprised me with books that I still hold dear; some I use in classrooms. These friends became part of my life, some my daily life, and taught me how to be steadfast and patient, while remaining curious about the world.

What happens when we lose friends who’ve helped us grow? It’s difficult to lose people you love to talk to and hear from, and who inspire you. It seems most difficult to learn how to live without them. I’m still learning. But I’d like to be for others who those friends were for me: an unintentional guide through this life. These friends didn’t set out to inspire me, but by being themselves and through their kindness, they taught me more than they realized.



Revision tactics

I’m heading into revision mode with some recent poems that need significant reworking. In the past, I’ve been able to find a line that allows me to clarify or develop my thoughts, but with some of the current poems, I find myself stuck. These particular poems fall flat and need to be completely rewritten. In this case, it can be hard to find a line significant enough to aid in revision.

Jeannine Hall Gailey has discussed using a word cloud generator to help with a title for a manuscript. If a word cloud generator can help with titles, I thought maybe it could help with pulling new phrases from a poem for revision. I copied the poem (without the title) into the generator, and presto! It showed me the words used most often, as well as other words I used in the periphery.  I pulled some new lines from the generator and this gave me a new way of thinking about the poem, which resulted in a revised poem with a related focus.

I don’t want to forget to mention (as much for myself as anyone else) this list of poem hacks by Carmen Giménez Smith which I’ve found helpful throughout the revision process and plan to return to again. I’d also like to hear about revision strategies that work for you when you’re stuck.

Here’s hoping you’re staying warm this winter and have a little bit of sunshine every now and then.










I’m not ready

Last weekend I did some work that made me really think about the poems I’ve been writing for the past 2 1/2 years. First, I finished a grant application which included a 10 page manuscript. This sheaf of poems contained what I believed to be my strongest work to date, but also reflected themes and imagery from my work-in- progress. Secondly, I sent a submission to a journal that asks with every submission that the writer discuss the work, so I wrote what I’d thought about while working on a certain set of poems. All of this work made me consider the poems I’ve been writing and collecting in a document for the past few years.

So far, the only work I’ve done toward making these poems move toward a manuscript is giving it a name which I know I don’t have to keep; after writing a few books I know this can change. I’ve also made a list of titles and tried to put the poems in some sort of order, but quickly decided I wasn’t ready.

I did the latter again this week: I printed the poems, thought about how each fit into a certain focus, and put them in separate piles designating the different parts of the focus. After I did this work, I put them back into a binder, but soon decided I didn’t want to separate the poems into sections based on parts of a focus, but to braid these parts together to construct a narrative.

In the past, sequencing a collection hasn’t been easy for me, but the process also hasn’t been as difficult as this one. My past books have called up a certain chronological narrative that this one doesn’t and can’t. Even though I called forth the past in both books, which interrupted each narrative then moved it forward, I can’t do that with this collection. In fact, I’m not even sure where to start.

I’m not frustrated with the process because I know that every book asks for something different from the writer. This one is a different creature than others I’ve written. To put the collection in order now may harm the process; I believe that when the narrative is ready to present itself, it will. My instinct is to take the poems out of the order I half-imposed on them this week, remove the poems that don’t fit the current focus, and keep writing. Forcing a structure on the work when I’m not ready won’t help me think and it won’t help my writing.

There is no right way to order a manuscript, that’s what I’ve noticed over the years. It’s not a perfect process. It’s messy and frustrating and joyful. As writers, we have to follow our instincts and decide when the work is ready to become a book. And if it isn’t ready, that’s okay. There’s no time limit. The only pressure is external, but we can’t do that to ourselves. We have to listen to and trust the work– that’s the voice that matters.


I’ve decided to take a hiatus from social media (except for Instagram every once and a while) so I can write. And when I say write, I mean that I want to take time to read and study other texts, consider the world on and off the page, and make connections. For me, writing is part of making these connections.

I’ll miss  keeping up with friends and the literary community, and I’ll find ways to stay current. But I have to offer time to my work, and if I’m scrolling through a newsfeed, I’m not being present with what I read and write. One of the ways I can keep up is to follow blogs and already follow a few. However, I always want to know about a blog I might be missing, so if you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments section.

I plan to keep this blog going, so I’ll be here to talk about the writing process and to share what I’m reading. I hope you’ll share what’s going on with you.

Until my next post, visit this poem in the latest issue of The New Yorker by Tess Gallagher, one of my favorite poets.


Holiday writing and reading

It’s Christmas Eve morning. Everyone in the house is sleeping except me. I’ve been reading a memoir, underlining sentences or passages I want to read again, and waiting for a poem to percolate.

This is my holiday life. After an intense 15 weeks of teaching and grading, it feels like a gift. It is, in fact, the best gift I can give myself.

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-care for a person’s mind and spirit: eating well, getting adequate sleep, doing things one enjoys. This list is short, I know, because self-care requires more than just taking care of the body, but also the mind. And this leads me to thinking about how a writer takes care of themselves. For me, it involves making time to read slowly, write slowly, pay attention to the world, be present, and enjoy the company of people who respect this act of creation– who are a community of support.

This year I’m beyond grateful to have time to do work that pleases my mind and soul. I shouldn’t call it work because it isn’t always. I’ll keep searching for a better word (which is my life’s journey).

Happy holidays, everyone.






Going Back

I’m never sure what to do when my writing gets emotionally tough. Sit at the computer and work through it, or step away from the page and come back later when I’m more objective?

To leave always seems like I’m giving up, that I’m exiting the place where I might be fully engaged in the poem. But what if the poem is so emotionally painful that to leave gives me emotional space?

It’s a hard call every time. First, to go to that place where I know the work will hurt and stay there long enough so that the feelings are raw and real. Then I step back. I say, That’s enough for now. Let’s come back later.

For a while I thought I wouldn’t go back. I kept telling myself, This is too hard. I don’t have to stay here.

But I kept going back. I knew the work was important, that I needed to keep trying to find words for feelings I was trying to understand.

That’s why I keep going back: to find a language for something I’ve never been able to express.




We’re all human in a poem

I’ve always thought of poetry as a way to make sense of the world. I still believe that poems offer viewpoints we may not have considered. I think this is important: not only does it encourage us to think in different ways, but it also offers a way for us to be empathetic to others.

Lately, I’ve also started thinking of poetry as a way to ask questions that hound us and not always have them answered, and accept that they won’t be, that we’re all confused.

For me, this isn’t the same thing as Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion.” If that were the case, poetry would make me feel less confused. Instead, poetry offers another human asking the same questions that no one has the answers to. The poem is not supposed to provide the answer. What the poem provides is solace that someone else feels this way, too.

There’s this poem by Diane Seuss that asks questions that no one will ever answer because the world shuts its mouth at the end of the poem. There’s this poem by Jack Gilbert that opens life for a moment with every mistake, and this poem by James Galvin that says we’ll keep making mistakes for as long as we live, grand ones even. These poems remind us that we’re all imperfect, and we have to recognize that, no matter how much it irritates us. Poetry makes our lives happen. It sends us into the world to make more mistakes, to fail better, as it were. What beauty poetry makes of our lives, and what courage.