Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Out of the Willows

There’s a new ‘game’ going around Facebook these days in which one must go through and list the ten most influential books he or she has read. Each person is supposed to go through and tag a few more people, and whoever is tagged must, in turn, play the game. I haven’t been tagged in the game thus far, but it got me thinking about what my most influential books would be. It is a question I have asked myself before because during my time at Pacific, and in several situations since then, I have been asked what made me want to be a poet. I’ll say the general things all of us say. Things like, “I’ve always been a poet.” “I’ve always just paid attention to things.” “I hear these stories in my head, and when I write them down, they’re poems.” “I just love beauty and I want to bring it to the page.” And so on. But every poet has a different story, a different book, a different light shining on the water that made him or her see the world in a new, right way. For me, it was one book in particular.

It was that time in a kid’s life when one almost feels like a teenager—but not quite—and almost feels like a kid—but not quite. Our family received a lot of hand-me-downs for everything. This meant I got my older cousins’ and brother’s clothes a year or two after they went out of fashion (which suited me just fine), jewelry they didn’t want anymore (which I never wore), movies they got tired of (that I ignored or watched until they wore out), and boxes of books they no longer cared for. At the time, I had just lost my favorite book of all time, Snow Dog by Jim Kjelgaard, and I was slowly, but not completely, tiring of my red-covered collection of short stories, of which I have sadly forgotten the name.

My cousins had recently cleared out their bookshelves, they being beyond my particular in-between age and, therefore, stories of talking animals and fantastic lands were no longer acceptable to their public school friends and their teenage sensibilities. My brother and I sifted through the box to find anything we might want before our parents sent the box on to the church library or the salvation army store in town. I dug through books depicting animals in armor, sylvan scenes of elves in forests overgrown with large ferns and majestically elongated trees, men in buckskins riding across the prairie (those books I set aside for my own shelf), and I noticed a red book cover peeking out from under all the others. I had recently misplaced my book of short stories, and I decided I must have lent the book to my cousins. I grabbed the corner and tugged it out to put it back on my shelf.

It wasn’t my short stories; it was a smaller, slightly thicker book with water stains on the yellowing pages and wear to the corners and at the spine. A collections of creatures I couldn’t quite name—a badger, a frog, and some rodents—wandered about beneath a bright white title: The Wind in the Willows.

At that point, when I took the book from the box, I reminded myself that I was nearly beyond books about animals. I set it down. I picked it up. Set it down. Turned it over and read the author’s biography. And I’ll be honest: two things sold me. First, I found that Kenneth Grahame lived primarily in England. (If you know me at all, you’ll know that’s a major selling point.) Second, the weeping willow was my favorite tree; if someone was going to go on about willow trees for a couple hundred pages, it was at least worth a read.

I was a child of C.S. Lewis, of Elleston Trevor’s Glade series, of Jim Kjelgaard—of wanderers and forest wonder. Grahame didn’t disappoint. I identified with the sensitive, overdramatic Mole. I was in awe of the ever-resourceful and caring water Rat. I wandered in my forest, dreaming of meeting the mysterious Badger. And I, like every other character in the book, frequently had an urge to slap the selfish, changeable Toad.

But Grahame’s book was more to me than the stories. I had dabbled in poetry. I had scribbled off little bits of silly rhymes and more serious attempts to capture the world the way I saw it. But it was Grahame who made me see “it”. Never mind the fact that Ratty is a poet—in the grand scope of things, he mostly just dabbles; though, he did make me prick up my ears and listen.

It was late one afternoon, and I was reading my “new” book. I was a fast reader, but I didn’t know how fascinated I might be, so I was reading it a chapter at a time. At least, that’s how I remember it. I also remember a setting sun throwing golden light on the wall, but my bedroom faced east, so we’re all aware of the fallacies of remembrance. I was reading Chapter 7 – “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” Otter was worried because his son had run away and been gone for hours. Good friends that they were, Ratty and Mole hopped into Rat’s boat and rowed to the backwater to see if the little one, Portly, had gone swimming alone and was unable to swim back against the current. But when they stepped off the boat, they heard the most incredible, haunting music they had ever heard. It was more beautiful, tragic, and hopeful than the music of the river that Rat loved best. It drew them through the forest until they came to a stump upon which sat an enormous, wondrous beast playing a pan flute. Having read the Chronicles of Narnia, I knew the creature was a faun. I knew, before the characters knew, that the characters had met Pan. Little Portly was safe, curled up at the creature’s feet.

The wonder of the scene was partly the description; every detail was alive in the text. Another part of it was that Pan never said a word. He gazed down on them while he played his flute, and sometime during the course of the song and the sunrise, he was gone. The two friends took Portly back to Otter, but instead of going home, they were full of that fear and wonder they felt in Pan’s presence, and they wanted to hear his music again. They floated the rest of the day and night on the river, the water flowing so gently it could hardly be heard. Instead, they heard the music again as the wind blew through the willows on the riverbank. Ratty, eyes closed, told Mole it was a song: “Dance-music—the lilting sort that runs on without a stop—but with words in it, too—it passes into words and out of them again—I catch them at intervals—then it is dance-music once more, and then nothing but the reeds’ soft thin whispering.” The words come to him then, soft and quiet, fading in and out, but there just the same.

Grahame composed a poem through the reed song—a poem full of mystery that drew from the story and the details and called for a particular form of attention. Once he set the scene just-so, he let the world speak. That, I realize now, is what I’m listening for. Not that I believe in the old gods, I don’t. But if I listen long enough, I can hear stories and songs gathering in my thoughts. It’s not that nature “speaks to me,” but I have grown and fed my sense of wonder with tales of an interactive world, and my imagination is strong enough to hear my own songs and poems in the willows.

Grahame’s characters do not merely wander about listening to reeds without a care in the world. I love them because of how real he made them. They have hopes, and they have hopes dashed. They feel listless sometimes, as though they don’t belong. In this vein, the other chapter that stands out to me most is “Wayfarers All.” Summer is getting on, and the birds and field mice are chatting about relocating before the cold comes on. Rat doesn’t see the point of rushing off to other places. Sitting in his river house by the fire while the water rushes by is all he needs to be happy. The birds tell him there’s nothing like going off to see the warmth and the beauty of other places. When he asks why they bother to come back to the river, they tell him “in due time…we shall be homesick once more for quiet water-lilies swaying on the surface of an English stream. But to-day all that seems pale and thin and very far away. Just now our blood dances to other music.”

Rat feels restless, but not enough to be swayed, until, down on the road, he meets up with a Sea Rat that has been staying on a nearby farm for a few months. They duck into some shade for the Sea Rat to rest his tired feet. As they sit, the Sea Rat fills Ratty’s mind with visions of jewels and silks in seaports, of captain’s cabins, stormy seas, the sounds of chanties ringing through the hold late into the night. Ratty staggers home in a daze to pack, swayed by the intoxicating rhythm and images of the Sea Rat’s stories. He has planned to meet the Sea Rat on the road and go to the ocean with him.

Mole just happens to be home, and when Rat tells him goodbye, Mole, in shock, grabs his friend’s shoulders and “looking into his eyes saw that they were glazed and set and turned a streaked and shifting grey—not his friend’s eyes, but the eyes of some other animal!” Terrified, Mole pushes Rat into his arm chair and all but sits on him to make him stay there until Rat stops fighting, tries to explain himself, bursts into tears and cries for an hour, then, exhausted, falls asleep. When Mole looks in later, Rat is busily working on a new poem.

That image of Rat’s changed eyes has haunted me since I first read it. I’ve tried time and time again to put that interaction between the two rats into a poem, and I haven’t been able to do it. There is such a desolation of the character of Rat that I can’t help but wonder if he was ever quite himself again. And I wonder if, for a time, the Sea Rat had Ratty’s warm, brown eyes. I wonder if he sat down and put his feet in the river and listened to the willows’ song thinking he could stay there; that he could find adventure along the river bank. And maybe not. Maybe Grahame didn’t wonder about things like that. But I did, and I still wonder. And I still go back to that book to revisit all of those perceptions it awakened in me.

After that book, when I read Kjelgaard again, I could hear all of nature. I could hear the poetry in Snow Dog, “The snow spread long, shadowy fingers in the lee of every tiny rise.” I could feel the abandonment, loneliness, and happiness in The Horse and His Boy by Lewis. I could let the wind in the trees tell me stories, the few snowberries still clinging to their bushes spell out poems in Braille, the water tumble leaves across a palette of stones in a literal watercolor and see the painting.

The Wind in the Willows was not of course, the only thing that brought me to poetry, but it was a keyhole that gave me glimpses. My forest home, my books, my parents who are passionate about the beauty of and respect for nature, and my biblical studies inspired my sense of awe for what has been, as the wording goes, fearfully and wonderfully made; these things inspired my desire to capture it all in written words as vividly as the authors I love.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Knitting Circle

A story I put together for the Frontiersman Camping Fellowship newsletter. Names have not been changed to protect the guilty, but I won't tell you who is who.
The Knitting Circle
by Little Star

Well, it was fall time, way back before Rex’ Warrior took off to the big city to learn the finer points of art and music and I took over helping my pa, Watchman, get meat and wood for the house. It had been a lean year. The summer had been too hot, and there weren’t enough early rains to make the crops produce the way they should’ve. The animals had meandered off to greener pastures, and Pa had to go farther than usual to find meat. He told us he would be gone a few weeks. Most of the wood and all of the crops were in, so Ma and I whiled the days away working on handcrafts. Ma’s a great quilter and she’d made blankets, curtains, shirts for Pa and Rex’ Warrior, and those darn dresses I had to wrestle into until I shot my own deer and made myself a pair of buckskins. But that’s another story. Ma had given up trying to teach me to quilt, and I was teaching her how to weave hats and scarves with a stick. Gramma taught it to me the last time she came out west to visit us. She said the French called it croshay and spelled it funny.
Ma was already a whiz at knitting, but with both crafts she always pulled the string too tight. Once, making a scarf for Pa, she was trying to croshay in a circle so it’d be twice as thick and warm. She wound up with a tube about four feet long. Turned out, she’d pulled it so snug it was completely airtight and sturdy enough that, when Pa’s carry bucket got a hole in it, he made a wooden cap for one end, rubbed it with pitch, and carried water up from the crick without spilling a drop. It was handy for all kinds of storage. Ma and I made more of them which we stuffed full of veggies and stacked in the root cellar. Ma had me try knitting hats, but the same sort of thing happened so we used them as canning jars.
On this particular afternoon, Pa had been gone about four or five weeks. Ma and I were trying to croshay some sweaters as a surprise for when he got back. It was getting late in the day, the sunshine filtered by trunks of the trees more than the branches, meaning dark time was about forty-five or so minutes away. Ma was in the midst of a complicated stitch, and she was looking at the knot she’d pulled it into to be sure it looked right.
“Little Star,” she said, “It’s comin’ up time to feed the chickens, unless you’re wanting to do it in the dark.”
“No, Ma, I’ll go do it. I can’t see the mice in the dark.”
Since Pa left, mice had taken up residence in the feed shed, gnawing their way past the short planks that corralled the grain bags and tunneling into the sacks. Scooping feed a time or two in the dark, I’d picked up a mouse that didn’t take kindly to being disturbed and took a bite out of my fingers.
“Take your scarf. And make sure the wood box outside the door is filled up, please.”
“Yes Ma’am,” I said. On my way out the door, I picked up my own scarf and slid it into my belt. It was about two and a half foot long, round and stiff as Pa’s, and I used it to play sword fights with imaginary injuns and pirates, smacking it against branches as if they were cutlasses and daggers. Pa and Rex’ Warrior had taken the guns with them since there were no injuns in these parts, but I carried my scarf anyway just in case.
The mice seemed particularly fat that night, their greedy middles about the size of my fist. I scooted them aside, filling a small sack with some grain. In the coop, the chickens were not as settled as I thought they might be this time of the evening. My favorite, the black-and-white rooster I’d named Jim, was especially restless—flapping his wings and strutting around the coop so quick it made me dizzy.
“It’s okay, Jim. Look, I brought your supper. Watch out for mice. I did my best to weed ‘em out.”
The other rooster and the hens converged on the grain I dumped in their bin, but Jim just stopped and watched me. Our dog, Ranger, took off the year before. To a farm, Pa said. Since then, Jim had been as alert as any watchdog. If he was unsettled, something was up.
Wary, I gathered the eggs in the feed sack and latched the door behind me, pulling my scarf from my belt quietly. The light had faded to a deep blue-gray and it was hard to make out all the shapes of windfalls and bushes between the trees.
Until one of them stepped into the clearing.
He was tall, dark haired, and could have used the sweater Ma was making. Dark-skinned, bare chested, buckskin pants. An injun! Pa had promised there were none around but it looked like it had been a lean year for them too. We’d never had trouble with injuns before. Pa traded with them if they passed through, swapping stories, food, ammunition, and beads for quills, skins, and anything interesting they might have. Tonight, though, I saw an injun aiming a rifle at the door of the cabin while two more sneaked off to the root cellar.
The only good thing about the dress I wore was that the color of it matched the twilight. That, plus the way Pa taught me to walk silent in moccasins, helped me sneak back to the feed shed. I hunkered down, my scarf in my hand, shushing the mice and praying Ma wouldn’t come to the door to see what was taking me so long.
I wished Pa hadn’t taken all the guns, wished Ranger hadn’t run off that way, prayed for some kind of idea, absentmindedly sliding my hand into my scarf the way I did sometimes when I played sword. A mouse squeaked. I blinked.
The injuns were fiddling with the root cellar door. Pa had taught me to tie a special knot to keep it shut, and when I tied it with wool yarn it was nearly impossible to undo. They didn’t try to cut the yarn, so I figured they probably didn’t want us to know they were there.
It was almost impossible to see in the shed, so I groped around in the nearest sack of grain and picked up a fat mouse, shoving it face first into the end of my scarf until it got stuck. I rested the scarf on one of the boards, sighting down its length at the Indian covering the cabin door. I held it there a moment, breathing slow the way Pa taught me. I jammed my fist hard as I could into the end of the scarf. *POP* went the mouse out the other end, sailing across the clearing until it smacked into the injun’s face and clung madly, clawing and scrabbling up toward his hairline to reach safety. The injun hollered and dropped his rifle. I already had another mouse down the scarf. It went *POP* and bit the hand of the injun trying to undo the knot. The third injun had drawn his knife and was about to slice the yarn holding the cellar door shut.
Another *POP* and an enormous *BOOM* resounded in the clearing at the same time. The injun yelped, trying to detach an angry rodent from his leg, sheathe his knife, and check on two sudden pepper spots on his hand all at once. His companions dragged him back into the woods as silently and suddenly as they’d come.
Ma’s face appeared at the window and I hoped and prayed it wasn’t another injun who had fired that shot. I stood up, still in the shadows, and watched two men step into the clearing. Another followed. It was Pa! He, Rex’ Warrior, and their hunting posse were dragging the biggest elk I had ever seen. I stepped out of the feed shed still holding my scarf with two feet and a tail wriggling out the end. Pa saw it as I came running up and laughed hard. He gave me a giant bear hug.
“What’d you shoot at ‘em, Pa?”
“Rock salt,” he said. “Works pretty well for a few things.” He gestured at the elk.
“You shot an elk with rock salt?”
“Among other things. Lets go inside and I’ll tell you and Ma about it.”
We walked to the cabin and I told him all about my scarf. The next year, he took me hunting.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dos, Don'ts, and Doubts: Why so Dramatic?

Today I gave my final presentation for my Master in Fine Arts Degree, and I'm pleased to say it went off pretty much without a hitch *cue the hallelujah chorus*. For those of you who were unable to make it and would like to see it, here it is for you, minus the poems I read. Sorry, but I can't put a bunch of them up on the internet.

Thanks so much for all the love and support, and to all of you who were able to come, and were here in spirit.

~Hannah Mae

Dos, Don’ts, and Doubts: Why so Dramatic?

I couldn’t figure out how to get in to this talk. I revised it and revised it, and finally I sat down and did what any red-blooded Montana girl would have done. I sat down in the middle of some trees and talked to myself for a good long time, like a little mini interview. Here’s what I got.

In my little bitty home town, there’s not much of a writing community. I work as a bank teller by day, and it almost never fails that someone asks me what I’m going to do that evening or that weekend. My response is usually, “Oh, I’m going to go home and do some homework.” “Homework for what?” “I’m getting my master’s in Creative Writing.” This leads to one of two responses. “Good for you! What are you going to do with that?” or “Oh, cool. I hate writing.” A few people go on to ask me how a 25 year-old home schooled Montana kid decides to turn into a poet. Well, here’s how it happens:

It starts out when you’re five years old and you carry around a five subject notebook every single place you go. I had all the sections neatly divided: one for stories, one for essays, one for longer stories, then songs, and, eventually, one for poems. I was initially divided between two career goals: to be a famous basketball player, or to be a jockey. I wound up too short to be a basketball player, and too tall to be a jockey. It was always my idea to be a children’s author in my spare time, but with the other two out of the way, writing was the only logical choice. I had grand plans to be the first famous kid children’s author. I even started a memoir: “Memoirs of a Kid.” It was two paragraphs about snow falling. Very powerful stuff. I also wrote a thirty page detective novel which is sitting on a corrupted green floppy disk in one of my desk drawers.

I was, as I said, a home schooled student and my brother and I finished our school work at about noon every day. My friends weren’t home for a few hours after that, so I’d grab my notebook and venture into my “office”: a stand of maples in the woods with a fallen log for a seat. I composed my stories and songs, and read them to my adoring fans—namely the white tailed deer that wandered past in the afternoon and the squirrels that threw pine cones at me when I read the parts they didn’t like.

Upon my very early graduation from high school, since I was not old enough for college yet, I enrolled in the Institute of Children’s Literature in West Redding, Connecticut. It was a correspondence program that promised intensive studies of writing with a successful published author. I got my books and sent in the first packet.

The author I was assigned was a writer I had never heard of. I had never seen, nor could I find, any of her books. She went through my stories and told me I needed to deepen my characters, give them more responsibility for their stories, increase the conflict, have the conflict come to a climax and resolve quickly. Problem was, she didn’t give me any idea how to do any of those things. At the end of the program, my writing had barely changed, though she deemed it ok to try and send somewhere. I received my diploma, shoved all of our correspondence in a file cabinet drawer, and slammed it shut.

By the time I finished with the Institute, I could enroll in Flathead Valley Community College. I’m afraid I fairly stalked the English professor there, Lowell Jaeger. I attended all his workshops, all the classes I could, talked to him every time we passed in the hallway, and followed all my friends to his office when they had questions or needed his help. I wanted to learn how to write, darn it, and he was the best person to teach me. He got so used to me (or sick of me) hanging around his office that he asked me to help him with a poetry anthology he was compiling. It turned in to an editing apprenticeship which kept us busy the entire time I studied at FVCC. It was my first introduction to contemporary poetry. Neither at that school, nor at the University of Montana did I find any classes devoted to poetry beyond workshops. I didn’t know who to read, or where to look for poetry that might guide my own writing.

People have asked me frequently what it was like to go from home schooling to a college environment, and I have to say that I was blessed as far as FVCC went. Part of the wonder of home schooling is just that: wonder. We had a curriculum, but if we wanted to or needed to we could break the rules and pursue any subject that interested us. I was an avid reader, and I was encouraged to look up anything I didn’t understand: words, practices, sciences, math, law, everything. My parents helped me out with the research and we discussed everything until all of us understood it. Lowell was the same way. His philosophy is that a teacher is there to guide the student, but has just as much to learn. He encouraged me to teach him things I knew that he didn’t, or we worked to discover things together—whether regarding poetry, writing in general, or any other discipline.

At the University of Montana, the approach was the opposite. My degree was English with an emphasis in both Creative Writing and literature. The degree requirements for either emphasis were virtually the same: for writing, the difference was I had to take three workshops. For lit, two extra theory classes were required. The majority of the classes focused on modern literature dissected by literary criticism and theory. I disagreed with my professors on the validity or applying a random theory such as deconstructionism, psychoanalytic, or Marxism, for example, to every single piece of writing we read and claiming that the author had intended all those things. I knew that those books could not have been made with every one of those theories in mind, but I wanted the grades, so I wrote the papers.

My saving grace was that toward the end of the semester, Lowell sent me another manuscript to proofread, New Poets of the American West. It gave me poems to read again, and I could read them for what I thought they were, not for what I could make them. And it was that manuscript that brought me to Pacific. I was going through the manuscript, and I came across the poem ‘Gate C-22’ by Ellen Bass. I read it for typos. I read it again. I read it again. There was something about that poem that caught my eye. The scene was so mundane: two people meeting up in an airport kissing hello. But it was how she showed the way everything was mundane—the clothes, their physical descriptions, their kiss, the passersby, the food court employee getting someone their food. The moment came alive. It meant something. It mattered. I read the bio on the page and found out that Ellen was on the admissions committee here at Pacific. So I applied, and by the grace of the admissions committee, I was accepted. And here I am.

It was like coming home. Unlike UM, I met students, writers, who wanted to talk about writing, what they were doing, what I could do. I found another writer just as connected to nature as I was, and we spent hours talking about how to make nature effective in our poems.

My first semester, I was thrilled to be paired with Ellen. I put my best poems in my packet, just sure of how much she’d love them and how perfect they were, and shipped them off. When her response arrived, she tempered my pride with such gentle criticisms as “your syntax here is a bit wonky” and “I think I almost know what you mean, but if you turn over a few more cards I’ll know which way you meant it.” We worked hard on the shaping of the poems, and especially the line. Poetry’s intricacy starts at the level of the line: what is left out, what’s included, whether the rhythm is the same or different from the previous line, whether that difference is intentional, unintentional (if anyone ever asks you, it’s always intentional). I learned the line is a complete unit—a sentence inside a bigger sentence, and each one should be able to stand on its own.

With Leslie Miller, I started out with short poems, short lines, and nearly every poem was a succinct extended metaphor. She coaxed me out across the page, asking me to delve into details, imagination, scene. I had just managed to distill my lines and now I had to go back and throw a bunch of stuff in them again. But I read Frank Gaspar’s “Night of a Thousand Blossoms” and learned that long lines are not always prose lines. They can be curious, strange, lovely, and, most importantly, leading. The danger for me was one poem in particular—it was great! Detail, similes, depressing subject, perfect! And I got Leslie’s letter back: “I have no notes for this poem, because nothing is missing. And that’s the problem. The story is so complete, there’s nothing left for the reader to discover.” I hadn’t been paying attention to the fact that my discoveries and the reader’s discoveries are not always the same thing.

Working with Peter Sears, my poems sneaked back into a more narrative vein. I experimented with form and some strangeness, but I let my poems have their genesis in my thoughts and my emotions. It led to some interesting and successful pieces. But that semester was my essay, and I was trying to unravel the process of letting a reader into my poems. I chose a nice, easy subject: rhetorical poetry and how it converts a poem into a civic conversational space.

I pounded out the rough draft, popped it in the mail, and sat down to try and apply it to my own poems. A couple days later, I got a phone call from Peter. “Kid, this essay is brilliant. And it’s unacceptable.” The essay’s subject was unique. The writing was unique, too! “You praise, interpret, philosophize, and discuss”, Peter said, “and you do it all in the same sentence”. With his patience, and an entire semester of revision, we both finally understood what I was trying to say, and worked it all out on the page. I slipped under the wire with about three days of the semester to spare, and a stack of narrative poetry that played with the boundaries of mysterious things but was unable to jump over the brink.

In my fourth semester, the revision, mystery, ability to write emotion, and discovery finally began to coalesce. Sandra was my wonderful and incredibly patient advisor, and she described my poems at the beginning of the semester like this: “Your poems are awkward and unique and smart and odd and muscular. Awkward only because you’re taking on more than you can handle and that ambition will get you everything—in time”. I was frequently heavy-handed and overdramatic in my poems. They started in interesting places, but I fairly dragged the reader from beginning to end.

While working on my fourth packet, I finally figured out why. I had a nasty habit I’ve been working on breaking where I pick up a book and read the end of it first (just to make sure everything turns out ok). I finally realized I was trying to write my poems from the bottom up. I had the end in mind, and I wanted the reader to get there, and to feel a certain way when she did. So, I added extra emotion and detail so I could be sure they’d see all the right things. When I noticed that, I finally sat down on my apartment floor with a mug of tea and a notebook, and I ripped those poems to shreds. (Figuratively). I lopped off endings, shaved middles, crossed off beginnings and virtually ransacked the entire manuscript, rebuilding it from fragments and the few lines left over. And I sent them to Sandra.

I got the packet back, ripped it open, and flipped through for the problem pieces that kept going back and forth. And I saw “check mark. Yes. Checkmark, yes”. They weren’t all perfect, but I finally really, truly, honestly revised.

There were more revisions to make after that, but I finally got past the preconceived ideas I’d carried all through the program. And as soon as I let go of the endings and feelings I wanted to get across, the doors opened to let me put those ideas into the poems in controlled ways without beating my readers over the head with them.

Have I conquered poetry, mystery, or revision? Goodness no. I can’t. Nobody can. But I am so thankful that, like my parents’ and my mentor’s approach to teaching, this program encouraged me to be curious, and I will carry that curiosity to discover the way things work out with me, and into my future writing.

I want to thank Shelley, Colleen, and Tenley for really making this program what it is, encouraging each and every one of us, and just being there to talk if we need it. For all of their hard work day after day, month after month, year after year, making this a community where all of us really belong and can explore whatever interests us however we want to. It really leads to something great.

To my parents, especially my poor father who was kept up late by my phone calls, crying in his ear that I was a lousy writer and would never pass a graduate program, and my mom who fielded them when he had gone to bed and bought me ice cream, chocolate, and ginger beer when absolutely necessary.

To my mentor Lowell Jaeger for taking an interest in my writing, encouraging me to come here, and for always believing that a student should share what they know with their teacher.

To Unkyl Steve for his long conversations with me about poems and craft over coffee, scones, guitar music, and one very long drive from Missoula to Portland in the middle of the night.

To my posse, Chris and Cynthia, and to Leigh, Katie, Michelle, Tas, Susan and Heidi, You guys are, without a doubt, the best friends anyone could make in this program or any other.



Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Little Something for NaPoWriMo

Since it's National Poetry Writing Month (and they say April is the cruelest month. Could that have been an April fool's joke?) I, along with poets across the nation, have been attempting to turn out a poem a day.
Well, I was at work the other day, and since I was so incredibly busy I spent the better part of a couple of minutes staring at my shoes. I finally announced to my coworker that my shoes look like catfish. (They do! I'm not even kidding!). Then I said I could probably write a poem about that. She dared me to. So, here it is, dedicated to her, and still, a little bit, in the works (In the actual format, the poem is one block stanza, not broken apart. I'm not sure why blogger can't understand these things...):

     Doc Martens at the corner of Second and Second
~For M Rad
My shoes are two catfish skimming suburban algae—pave dust, polyester

fibers too small for my eye to see—they gobble it up:
mud and birch mold, chewed-up gum

and a spilled latte. They drink it in with relish, slipping

from crack to crack or cobble to cobble
without missing a beat, hungry

for the next piece of wanton waste. And their eyes—dumb
oversized eyes wide open—staring straight up
at the blue or gray or fuchsia sweeping over,
never darting to safety when it rains, always eyes up
and open. They don’t need to search for purchase,
catfish, do they? Big sucker mouths and whiskers
like hands out telling them all they need to know,
never worried that they don’t dress up in anything
but silt-stitched grayscale scales zipped
across their back and sides. Their eyes on every sunrise, sunset,
every scroll of clouds unrolled across the water’s back.
If my eyes are down on them admiring their hunger
what do they know I’m missing
that’s going on over my head?


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

On my Twenty-Fifth Birthday

     On my Twenty-Fifth Birthday

This year, I want to lose something.
Not a pound
     or a bad habit
(though I would,
but something of moderate significance:
my car
     my cell phone
          a notebook of poems finished but never read.
I want to feel an absence; to not quite know
what is in it. To look
at the drive way
     or the bookshelf
knowing I could fill it if I wanted,
knowing there was something I once
wanted more.

I am told I will not be young forever. Already, I feel
the old woman in my skin telling me
what I should do, what I should
not say.
I feel her wrinkled cheeks
inside my cheeks when I wake in the morning.
I see her softening skin in the puddles
when I walk, and she smiles
when I smile. Sometimes I lace my fingers
through the surface to touch her hand.
I do not want to lose the old woman. I want
to lose something she thinks
she already knows.

Friday, January 25, 2013

So Begins the Sleeplessness

I didn't do so well with keeping up on my residency experience this time around. I will use the fact that everyone including me got some form of illness or another. I will fill in the bulk of my experience later but, as is my tradition, I wanted to put up my residency summary. I will put more up later. Have a great day, everybody!

Residency Summary: Awake in the Depths

I am still amazed by how things come together at the residencies. This time, it feel into line with what my semester had begun to teach me—the idea of depth. This past semester, I started to understand how to let my poems and my imagination take me into things I didn’t think I knew. The farther I went, the more things made sense. This residency, several of the faculty members turned to depth in their craft talks in different ways. The most important, to me, was Claire Davis’ suggestion to turn to depth instead of trying to always move forward with story. Sometimes, when writing something and it isn’t going anywhere, I need to write vertically. Starting out small and distant, I need to zoom in and take in anything and everything that might be around me. For a poem, it might be geography, proper names of things, a deeper realization of the character I am presenting, thoughts, actions, spaces. I need to plumb the strata of the moment in order to discover more and present more in a poem, or a moment in a novel. Sometimes writing simply needs the writer to stop and open her eyes.
A similar topic came up in Ben Percy’s craft talk. He said to “notice what you notice” about things around us. When something is interesting, we tend to look at it longer. But what do we notice about it? Something common or uncommon, something we could show the reader that he may not have noticed before? His talk melded well with Debra Gwartney’s talk on specificity. When writing, it is not necessary to be specific about everything. The reader will think, at first, that something is important, and then realize that nothing is. The most important thing is to be aware of the character’s perception. When there is a moment when specifics are called for, then I need to be behind the character’s eyes, aware of his or her emotional state and surroundings. Human beings almost never notice things logically, and I have an opportunity to show the quirky or strange things I or my character would see when deep in thought, or thoroughly enmeshed in a moment.
How is this depth achieved? Marvin Bell and Cristina Garcia suggested a chaotic creative life is best for a writer. Shaking up my routine, reminding myself that I am not, and should not be predictable,  and “becoming peripatetic” as Jack Driscoll said are all ways to get beyond the conscious mind and sink deeply into the subconscious. When I sit down to write, I must start too early and write too long in order to allow the wonder and strangeness of my mind out onto the page. It is only then that the poem can truly get past the conscious mind and make connections of its own—connections I could never have predicted or attempted to make on my own.
The most effective way to call things from our mind, whether strange or obvious, is to think. Kwame admonished us as poets to spend time in thought. And not to think only about politics or the social structure of our world, though those things are important, but to think deeply about other common things: love, family, an encounter with a stranger. Poets are looked up to in many parts of the world as thinkers. We have opinions and ideas, but too many writers stay to the simpler, shallower end of the writing pool, afraid of what people may think of what they have to say. As writers, we can’t do this. We have a responsibility to come to the page, to ponder what we are putting on the page, and to offer these writings to those who are reading them without apology. “I have to think of what is urgent,” Kwame said. We don’t write to make people like us, we write to make people think; to deepen their awareness of the world and what surrounds them.
I have often been encouraged to dive deep into writing, and I thought I had been—spending as much time as I thought I could and writing anything and everything that came to my mind. I realize now I have to actively awaken my mind by reaching deeply into it. I have to be a writer every day by taking the time to think more deeply about the events going on around me, my emotions, my actions. I realize that I am responsible for what I write. I am an influence on those who will read my writing, and I want to wake those people up to the world whether I am showing them what the world is made of, or what it is becoming.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Back in the Saddle Again

Well, if the road to we all know where is paved with good intentions, I'm in a heap of trouble at the moment, since this didn't get put up yesterday. However, I spent some quality time on Sunday evening (which made my monday morning less than quality and more coffee) sketching in my travel stories I wanted to tell for the benefit of all of you back home.

For anyone who may have forgotten, I'm deep into my MFA studies at Pacific University. I'm beginning my fourth semester which will focus mostly on the compilation and revision of the thesis manuscript--so far as I know. I still don't know what goes in to the thesis semester. I suppose, like everything else, I'll figure it out as we go.

I left Kalispell around 7:45 on Saturday night. So, yes, this post is delayed. I like to keep this blog running while I'm away to keep everybody back home in the loop while I'm staying up too late, getting up too early, and hanging out with some of the most fantastic, most gracious, and most talented writers in the country. (Most of them fit in to all three categories.)

So then, the getting here.

I got to the Whitefish Amtrak Station at 8:20pm Saturday. Shaunna and Lexi dropped me off. We had a nice chat on some of our favorite book series along the way. I had Mary Helen Stefaniak's book, "The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia" in my backpack to read in the lobby while I waited for the train. I had planned to finish up the worksheeps for my workshop group on the train and then hopefully relax for a bit before we got to Portland. I went into the train station and the guy behind the counter let me know the train was running late, and would be in somewhere around ten p.m. So I sat down with my book and read while another person, then a mom and her two daughters, then four older people, then a group of five guys came in. Pretty soon the little train station was packed.
When the train finally pulled in, I headed for the last three cars of the train. (The Empire Builder Amtrak train stops in Spokane, gets split in half, three cars get put on a new engine to head toward Oregon, the rest of the train goes to Seattle). The conductor stopped me before I got to the doorway and told us all to form a line. The train was going to be full, so he was assigning seats. He called for families and people traveling together first, then those traveling alone. I was among the first of the 'loners', and he handed me a ticket for seat number thirty. I figured it was probably an aisle seat, but I was hoping for an aisle seat with some space to do my work.
I got on the train, stowed my suitcase and climbed the stairs. I looked up at the numbers just below the luggage rack to track down number thirty, and there it was, directly across from the stairs...with an older gentleman slumbering in the seat beside it. I stowed my backpack in the luggage rack after rescuing my book again, and set my bookbag on the floor gently. I sat down and leaned into the aisle a bit so I could read for a while, since I didn't want to reach over his head and turn on the reading light for fear that the motion or the light would wake him.
Fifteen minutes later, he woke up, stood, and asked me to excuse him. He left his backpack and his water and headed up toward the lounge car. They had just announced that the snack bar was closing in about ten minutes. I didn't unpack my homework. He'd been forced to step over me, and I had to pick up my book bag to let him by. So I turned on the light and waited until he came back to settle in with my worksheets.
After about an hour, I was checking the forward door every five minutes or so. No sign of him. After two hours, I tucked my book under my winter coat. I used the coat as a blanket and dozed, checking every ten minutes or so to see if he was coming back and I needed to move. By morning, there was still no sign of him, all his things still in my seat. Of course, all the most interesting and imaginative possibilities were coming to mind: He jumped off the train, he was thrown off the train, he got off for a smoke and we left without him, he had a heart attack in the lounge car and they offloaded him at some stop, he had a heart attack in the lounge car and was still down there...Or met a friend. Or sat down somewhere else. Or....there was....a bomb in his backpack?
Thoughts of all sorts crowding worksheets out of my mind, I scooted as far toward the aisle as I could get (not much further than I already was) and stared out the window willing PDX to appear. The guy behind me was sneezing, sighing, and snorting every two to five minutes like clockwork. The conductor came on the PA system to tell us we were a half hour out. Then fifteen minutes. Then ten. Five minutes to PDX (the train station), the gentleman appeared with a young girl who looked like she was his granddaughter, and asked if he could retrieve his things. The little girl was holding a cup of coffee and telling him the drink smelled like him. Then they walked off together. So much for getting homework done on the train.
I disembarked and headed into the train station, intent on finding my way to a Tri-met ticket station. Portland has a light rail train that goes all over the city. My cousin also calls it the MAX. Unkyl had me get on the train once to go and meet some family. I didn't remember much about it except it would prevent my family from driving clear into downtown Portland to take me from the train to the airport. So, I looked for an information desk to give me some directions. The itenerary I'd printed off the internet instructed me to walk out of Union Station and head south. Problem was, there were no indicators in the building to tell me which way south might be, and nothing on my directions to tell me right, left, ahead, or behind. Apparently, Union Station is not equipped with an information desk, and the man at the ticket counter looked quite surly. So I decided to act as if the Tri-Met map was on the north wall, since the map had an N in the corner and an arrow pointing up. (I can see my father, all the rangers, and all the FCFers shaking their heads in despair. Sorry, guys, I know my directions by the mountain ranges at home, the sun was behind the clouds, I had no analogue watch, and there are no trees with moss on them by the station.)
If the map was, in fact, on the north wall, it'd mean I needed to go 'round to the other side of the building. But when I tried that, there was a fence to the right a ways, and to the left was a high staircase and a skybridge with no indication of a light rail track. So, I decided I'd wander up ahead and see what happened. I came upon the greyhound station a few feet away and thought I'd go back to the train station to track someone down for directions, but the light to cross the street was red and I didn't want to wait for it. I turned back around and, lo and behold, a Tri-Met ticket station!
Now, when I say 'ticket station' I really mean vending-machine-like independend kiosk with no human attendant and, apparently, inadequate instructions. I pressed the button for an Adult 18-25 (or whatever the age range), a two hour ticket, and that I wanted to pay. I tried to put in $5, and nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. I turned it around. Nothing. I flipped it over, nothing. I tried it the first way again. Nothing. By this time, there's a line behind me.
"Hey, what's going on? What are you doing?"
"Didn't you press the button?"
"Put your money in, come on"
That, and a rather intense guy giving me dirty looks.
That was the moment one of the trains pulled in and a guy got off to see what was happening. Apparently he worked for Tri-Met. He pressed all the buttons again and tried to insert my cash. Nothing. He looked at me, looked at the line, and said "tell you what." He opened his wallet, dug around, and pulled out a ticket. He had me validate it. "You look like an honest citizen, and you really tried hard to pay for it, so here you go." I was floored. I thanked him and two guys behind me asked if he was giving those out.
"No, she tried to pay for it and it didn't work. Just that one, sorry guys."
He started walking away, and the younger guy behind me whipped open his own wallet and pulled out a card.
"See this? It says Active Duty. I FOUGHT FOR YOU!"
His friend said "He doesn't care, man", and they walked away. I walked around to the front of the kiosk, thoroughly embarrased, and there was a nice older lady standing there who asked me what happened. I told her I was from Montana where my town just barely got a bus route. I confessed I had no idea what I was doing, so she told me to get on the train she was waiting for, then swap trains. I told her my directions said to get off at the Rose Quarter. She told me I should absolutely not do that, and to wait to get off until the convention center, which she considered safer. I deferred to her good judgement and we got to talking. She's from Tillamook. I asked her where she was from originally and she told me she was from California. She'd lived there with her first husband. Then she laughed and told me that always sounded dubious--she'd only been married twice.
She told me about her son--how he likes to travel, how he's a freelance/self-employed/sometimes contracted graphic designer, how he helped design an international Hershey bar wrapper for one of their bigger candy bars and it got an award. "He always puts that on his resume".
We chatted until it was time for me to swap trains. She told me "Get on this one, and don't get off it until they throw you off. The final stop is the airport."
I grabbed all my stuff and made a beeline for a seat. After I sat down, a rough voice asked me "You know where Target is?"
I turned to see this guy in a fluffy red coat and jeans who looked almost as rough as his voice. He looked like he had two black eyes, and I wasn't sure if he was like our transients back home, just came off a night shift, a bender, who knows. I told him I had no idea and he closed his eyes. After he fell asleep I glanced that way and realized he had the word "Bunk" tattoed on his left eyelid, and "Dope" tattooed on the right. Twenty minutes later, we pulled into the second to last stop. I looked up, and there was Target in all its overgrown red-and-khakhi splendor.
"Hey," I said, "there's Target".
He kept snoring. I left him alone.
I felt bad that he missed his stop, and I wondered if he would need another fare. I thought about the seat on the train I had all to myself, the great guy who gave me a ticket, and the lady who had showed up to be my traveling companion, and figured I ought to do something. So I fished out the $5 I was going to use to buy my MAX ticket, said a little prayer, and left it on the seat in front of him. My hope was that if he needed a fare, or if someone else was getting on who needed a little something, it'd make the difference like all the things that had happened for me.
I got off the train and made it into the airport as fast as I could. I found the check-in to catch the Pacific shuttle and told the lady my name, and that I was on the next shuttle.
"Oh. You're early".
"Yep, I know. I figured I might be."
"Well, we'll just put you on this shuttle. It's parked out there. Tell the driver not to leave until I call him".
So I ran outside, across the roadway, and made it to the shuttle! With catching that shuttle, I made it to the hotel two hours sooner than I thought I would.
On the drive, Phil, Mags and I chatted about Bigfoot, wine, seafood, bike riding, karaoke, my bank, Phil's farm, and how most Led Zeppelin songs are about the Lord of the Rings. When we pulled in to the hotel, Mary Helen turned around and told us we were better than listening to talk radio. I hadn't noticed that almost no one else in the bus was talking. Apparently everyone had been listening to us.
Chris and I met up and headed for our room. Cynthia showed up a couple of hours later, and the posse was complete!

So, there's my travel story. I'll get some school stuff up here, hopefully tomorrow, although it's the bonfire on the beach tomorrow night if it's not dumping rain. So, we'll see!

Have a great night all