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.

On staying energized

The first week of classes is over. It was great to be back in the classroom and talking with students about writing, as well as literature and poetry, and as happy as I am to start the semester, I’m also glad to have a little break. I’m spending the first Saturday of the academic year with poetry: revising my own poems, finishing Map to the Stars by Adrian Matejka, continuing a novel by Ali Smith, and doing some work as an editor. It’s important for me to keep this work going because it energizes me when I’m in the classroom.

This week, I’ve been able to keep poetry in my days by the poem-a-day feature at poets.org which sends a poem to your inbox each day when you sign up. There have been some wonderful poems in the past seven days, and it’s been a treat to read poems each morning by poets I admire or may not be familiar with.  And, of course, there’s always a poem like “There is a force that breaks the body” by Diane Seuss to lead me to another poem by Diane Seuss which brings me to tears over breakfast.

Starting my day with poetry, both writing (20 minutes at least) and reading, has been a boost for me this week. I don’t have a light teaching schedule this semester, but I love the classes I’m teaching and want this energy to continue. However, it can’t continue on it’s own; I have to find ways to keep it going.

I know these aren’t the only ways we energize ourselves. I’d love to hear from you!





A poem publication, a call for submissions, and making time for poetry

I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem included in the new issue of San Pedro River Review! This is a gorgeous print journal with a matte finish. They publish poetry and art, so if you are an artist or poet, please check them out. Their next reading period opens in January 2018 for a music-themed issue. Get your poems about music ready and consider sending your work!

In other news, I’m preparing for the fall semester and have noticed that the time I make for poetry is dwindling. However, this week I discovered that Poetry has an app for mobile devices. If you’re a subscriber to the journal, you can download the app to a device, enter your email address, and access current and past issues. Now I can carry one of my favorite literary magazines with me anywhere and quickly access poems when I have a spare minute to read during the work day. In what ways do you add poetry to your day? I’d love to hear about them.








On being a friend to the poem

I’m currently working on poems that have a similar theme. When I draft a new poem, I write toward my current obsession, or subject, if you will. I put it through draft after draft, week after week, and sometimes the poem will find itself, or we’ll discover the way together.

I’m also here to tell you that each poem is an independent spirit. If you fight that poem with an idea of what you think it should be, it will fight back like a cornered cat. Or it will sit in the corner and say nothing until you shut up.

In these tough moments, you wish every poem knew exactly what it wanted to be as soon as you put it on paper. But poems are like people: sometimes they don’t know what they want to say but they keep trying to say it, fumbling every time, and then someone tries to tells them what they should say.

Poems, like people, don’t like being told what to do.

This is the place where we need to not only respect the poem but listen to it, really listen: to a specific image, a fragment, or an overall theme. This is where we need to be a friend to the poem, not the maker or the conductor. We still have those roles, but not at this place. After this place, yes, once we’ve helped the poem find its way.

You never know when you’ll arrive here. The poem might move along wonderfully for months, then you one day you discover it’s not fully realized. Or you might write a fully realized poem within a few weeks. Or you might butt your head against the foundation of the poem for years.

It’s wonderful to think of ourselves as creators, but we also have to be a friend to what we create. We have to respect our writing, ask how it’s doing, and keep going back to continue the conversation. Staying engaged and having a relationship with our work is one of the hardest things we do as writers, but it’s worth it. Not only will the work thrive, but so will our spirits.




And so summer slowly ends…

… and I start thinking about how I will carry what I learned this summer about writing into the fall. I teach at a university, so in a few weeks I’ll be busy with classes, meetings, and grading, but I want to continue my summer schedule. I might mention that I didn’t make my schedule this summer too intense. My goal was to write and/or read each day, or a mixture of the two if I had time. Most days I did both. Some days I wrote. Some days I only read. The goal was to do some work toward writing each day.

I knew I would need help starting this goal. It sounds so easy in retrospect to make this happen everyday, but I am easily distracted. Binge a show on Netflix? Sure. Spend a week reading a novel? Of course! It’s summer, isn’t it?

But summer is also my time to write. I spend fall and spring semesters teaching, which means I work every day of the week during the academic year. This doesn’t mean I’m always grading, but I’m constantly thinking about my classes, and when I’m not prepping, I’m making notes about what I want to say in class the next day.

To move from that schedule to one where I’m focused on my own work takes a bit of coaching. This summer, for the month of July, I hired a writing coach, set goals, and was accountable every day for the work I did. Because of that daily accountability, at the end of July I had a better sense of the focus of my manuscript, a working title, and an acceptance from a literary journal.

Is writing everyday about being accountable? Maybe. I still keep note of what I accomplish each day in my journal and write about where I want to go next, one of the most important takeaways from this summer. Sometimes I’ll write about what I’m reading. The most important thing I learned was writing each day or doing some work toward writing (revision, research, notetaking, reading, or discussing a poem with a friend) helps my sense of accomplishment immensely. I’m working toward something larger and I know that small steps accumulate. I’ll keep moving.


Finding Words

Yesterday I learned new words to name something I experienced. Whenever that happens, I also have a new way of looking at the world. Certain parts of my life start to make more sense.

However, there’s one problem with this new knowledge: I don’t have a language to talk about the experience yet. I might have a name or a title, but I’m still wrapping my head around the larger subject, and finding and learning new language with which to talk about it.

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. I’ve had many other instances where I learn new language to talk about something I’ve just begun to understand. I write the words down. I use them in sentences. When I start learning new words for common but unspoken experiences, I think of my grandmother who died of cancer when I was 25. When she was going through radiation treatment, I visited her at my uncle’s house in Virginia where he, his wife, and one of my cousins (who is a nurse) took care of her. I noticed on the table beside the chair my grandmother sat in that she had written the word “radiation” in red capital letters on a small sheet of paper and taped it to the stem of the lamp. This might have been her way of getting used to the new vocabulary that was being used in her life and a way to understand what she was going through. My grandmother loved words and knew their power, and this one was so powerful she needed time to get her mind around it.

I think it’s the same when we’re writing new work. For me, new poems always feel raw and unsettled. They haven’t found their voice yet, and I think that voice has a lot to do with figuring out how to write about a subject I’m still trying to understand. When I’m writing about a subject for the first time, I read a lot about the subject. I learn new vocabulary and ways of describing images or objects.  I also read books written about the subject to understand how another poet or writer wrote about it. Of course, I’m pretty hard on myself during this process, too: I seem to think I should already know how to write about this subject, but that’s not true. It’s never true. Writing is a process of discovery: we write about what we want to understand so we can communicate what we’ve learned. We add to that knowledge as we learn how to write about it.

My grandmother had the right idea: she wrote down the words she wanted to learn and understand. She loved definitions and completed a crossword puzzle everyday because she loved learning about the world through language. That’s why we writers work with words: they’re one of the best ways for us to understand and communicate our experience.

I hope that words bring you to an understanding you haven’t met before. I hope the same for myself.