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Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween and Hallowed Silence

Our neighborhood celebrated Halloween last night (the 30th of October here in Japan) even though it was raining. Although Halloween parties and treats are becoming gradually more known here, a trick-or-treating venue is still relatively hard to come by. However, since we moved in to our current  neighborhood about 6 years ago, our neighbors have embraced trick-or-treating; well, some of them have. In order not to disturb the ones who haven't, we distribute a flyer featuring a jack-o-lantern to the neighbors who want to participate, and kids are told to only ring the doorbells of homes with the right picture on the door. It works. Fun was had last night by all who participated. And the others tolerated the noisy running around the street quite nicely.

Speaking of noise, later this week a relative is coming to stay with us. This relative is older and doesn't adjust very well to the idea of family-style living, so her visits are always a challenge. In particular, her need to have the television running 18 hours a day at top volume is a real problem for me (and for my children who have a hard time studying during her visits, or having friends in to play, or doing anything). I cannot work well when she visits, cannot write, and feel distressed a good portion of the time. We don't have a very big home (it's big for Japan but still not big enough that we have more than one tv, or that what one person does at full volume in one part of our home doesn't affect everyone no matter if in the same room or not). So we have announced that from this visit forward, she will have to limit her television-watching to when the children are not studying or entertaining friends (which won't salvage my days, but part of hosting a guest is putting up with crap, I suppose). This particular relative has never taken suggestions well, so we will have to see how she takes outright rules. Shall keep you posted.

Anyway, this got me thinking about silence and how I crave it. When my husband leaves for work and the kids for school, I turn off the tv (which had been on for the morning news) and I don't turn it or a radio or any music on until the family returns and turns that kind of stuff on for themselves. I do work for my clients in silence, I write in silence, I do housework in silence, and that's the way I like it. When I leave the house I put on my iPod and listen to podcasts rather than have to listen to whatever noise the city streets would impose on me. Silence is absolutely key to my sense of well-being. It's odd, considering I grew up as one of eight kids in a house constantly full of noise, or perhaps it's not odd, considering that.

Anyway, this week Tupelo Press editor Jeffrey Levine featured a post about sound on his blog, which is right in line with what I'm musing about these days. He quotes the line from poet Olena Kalytiak Davis's prize-winning book And Her Soul Out of Nothing, "the brain sits right next to the ears.”

This morning I have my blessed silence, after a weekend of kids and noise, and so I am signing off now to enjoy it and the fruitfulness it brings me.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Prompts for When You're Stuck

Here's an interesting writing prompt that came to my inbox this week courtesy of the Poets & Writers "The Time is Now eNewsletter." You can subscribe to it by clicking on the link. (The newsletter comes once a week, supplying you with a poetry prompt, a fiction prompt, and a recommendation for a book on craft.)

This week's poetry prompt was:

Choose a draft of a poem that you've been working on or a poem that you aren't satisfied with. Print it out double-spaced. Write a new line between each line, then revise the poem as a whole, working to first expand it, then distill it to its most powerful form.

This is similar to a prompt I mentioned a few months ago in which you choose a poem by someone else, delete every other line (all the odds or all the evens), fill the missing lines in with lines of your own, then delete the lines that still remain from the original poem (whichever you didn't delete the first time around, the odds or the evens), and fill those in with your own lines.

These two ideas please me. When I am stuck, working in a puzzle-like way, solving something, fitting things together, is often a useful way to get unstuck.

Another idea I've read for getting unstuck is to simply say the very opposite of what you just said (replace the line with its opposite, or abut one opposite against another) and see what comes of that. Of course, sometimes it's not clear what the opposite of a line would be (for Seinfeld fans, remember the episode in which George decides to do the opposite of everything he would normally do in order to attract women; or, for Friends fans, remember when Joey does the opposite of everything that Chandler tells him to do: this is the episode about "going commando"--can you tell from my pop culture references when I moved to Japan and stopped keeping up with American pop culture?) But when the opposite is not clear, that might be an excellent opportunity to really use your imagination, and perhaps get past whatever is blocking you.

Finally, another good idea for when you are stuck is to use start the next line of the poem with a "turning" word or phrase, such as but, however, still, anyway, on the other hand, just to see what happens. (Yes, this is similar to saying the opposite, only not going quite so far in jogging your thinking out of its rut.)

I take no credit for these ideas, but have used them all at one time or another, and found them sometimes helpful, sometimes not.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Rock Stacking

My sons are interested in doing science experiments, so we subscribe to The Happy Scientist newsletter by Robert Krampf, which links back to his latest post on his website, This week's post is about rock stacking.

Krampf discusses the center of gravity (which my best friend Leslie kindly explained to me many times during college, when I repeatedly fell on the icy walks--I cannot say that I ever took her advice to lower my center of gravity by crouching down; instead I continued to tumble.) Krampf also provides photos of amazing rock-stacking feats (three of which I include here).

I could tell you that rock stacking is good training for writing, but really, what is it NOT good training for? So instead I will leave you just to enjoy these breath-taking photos, courtesy of The Happy Scientist.

If you have any rock-stacking stories, how you've done it yourself or if you've run across it somewhere unexpected, please share.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mark Doty at the Whiting Fdn Awards

Poet Mark Doty spoke to the honorees at the official announcement of the Whiting Foundation Awards last evening. Although we don't get to take home $50,000 dollars like the 10 members of the Whiting class of 2011 do, we can all still benefit from what Doty had to say to them, and to all writers.

Here are some excerpts:

A Nobel laureate has said, in a statement of praise for these prizes, “ The Whiting Awards are a wonderful antidote to self-doubt.” My immediate response is, well, good luck with that. If you’re at all like me, you’ll feel effervescent this evening, and lifted up by this experience for the next few days. In less than a week from tonight...your uncertainties and doubts in your own capabilities, in the worth of your projects, in the value of what we do – well, I wish that the Trustees of the Whiting Foundation had the power to simply wave those things away by giving you a citation and a check.

Or maybe I don’t wish that, not really. If there were not moments when it seems no one is paying the least bit of attention to what you do, or days when it seems the world absolutely does not need another lyric poem, another novel of ideas, I suspect our work would be far the less for it. Rejection must be at least as much a part of of our education as affirmation is...

And therefore artists, even ones who receive recognition, are subject to a particularly corrosive sort of bitterness. This is a mysterious thing, but I suspect it’s because the stakes involved here are primarily those of honor, of beautiful intangibles....The wanting is so large that it’s hard to figure out where satisfaction resides; what will it require, for us to believe we’ve done something worthwhile?

...But we artists -- and I will go even further out on this limb and suggest that particularly we writers – know what it is to want....Writers want to fit the world into words; we want to fit the world into our mouths. We seem to have an impossible longing for contact, impossible not only because of the boundaries of our separate skins but because of the fundamental inadequacy of the material we use for making connections: the ephemeral, airy, malleable stuff of language.

...Joy Williams has said it best.“Why does the writer write?” she asks. “The writer writes to serve -- hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve -- not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us.”

Doty (nearly) ends his speech with, "...may these awards be sustenance for you, and help you to negotiate with your doubt, and make good use of it."

And that's what we need to do, all of us writers: negotiate our doubt and make good use of it.

Halloween Idea: Poet! has some ideas on how to dress as your favorite writer for Halloween. For example, suppose you'd like to go as William Carlos Williams, here's what you'll need:
You Will Need
A stethoscope
Medical gloves
Brushed-back hair

Extra Credit

A bowl of plums

A red wheelbarrow full of candy

Visit the website for ideas on how to dress as Emily Dickenson, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman and Sappho as well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Whiting Fdn: Shane McCrae

Congratulations to Shane McCrae for winning a Whiting Foundation Award for 2011. Click here to see the other winners this year.

The Whiting Foundation gives $50,000 (yes, that's right, $50,000 each) to ten writers annually in an award to honor those "of exceptional talent and promise in early career."

To learn a little more about Shane McCrae, see my earlier post here, which links to an interview with him and also some poems by him that are available for viewing on the web.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Writing About Health

Today I have for you something serious and something silly.

First, from editor (and poet) Amy King's mention on Facebook, The Barefoot Review is a new journal that publishes original work by writers who have had physical difficulties in their lives and also work by their family, friends, and/or caregivers. The editors are especially interested in aspects of surviving. The new journal will be coming out twice a year, on the solstices, a schedule which I love. The Barefoot Review also lists other places you can read creative works about health on their website.

One place not listed on their website is a journal in which I have published work about our family's struggles with health, called KaleidoscopeExploring the Experience of Disability through Literature and the Fine Arts, out of the United Disabilty Services of Akron. So that's another good placet to submit, or to find creative writing on the subject.

Now, for the silly thing. Some "Broetry" from Brian McGackin at

Monday, October 24, 2011

Of Of Lamb

Okay, that title should read "Of Of Lamb" but apparently Blogger doesn't allow the use of italics in post titles. Okay, now I know.

This post is mostly for those who attended my erasure workshop at the Japan Writers Conference. One of the works we discussed was Matthea Harvey's Of Lamb, which is reviewed at the West 10th blog here. Just wanted to let all you conference attendees (and anyone else interested) know.

I promise not to post anything else today.

(And I have one more thing...but there's always tomorrow.)

The Universe on Fear

Synchronicity: after posting about fear yesterday, everything I read seemed to be on the same subject, almost as if the universe had something to say to me (which I don't really believe, that the universe has any special messages for me, but it almost seems so sometimes...) So, in the off-chance you didn't get enough of my fear-obsessing yesterday, here's a bit more:

From an interview with Lucille Clifton:

"Every day there is something that would make you afraid, and you have to try not to let it stop you. That's where the honor is. Honor is not in not acting because you are afraid. Nor is there honor in acting when are you not afraid. But acting when you are afraid, that's where the honor is."

And from The Art of Happiness by HH Dalai Lama & Howard C. Cutler (which is not a very well-written book, I have to say, though it is still interesting to read):

"In the Dalai Lama's system of training the mind and achieving happiness, the closer one gets to being motivated by altruism, the more fearless one becomes in the face of even extremely anxiety-provoking circumstances. But the same principle can be applied in smaller ways, even when one's motivation is less than completely altruistic. Standing back and simply making sure that you mean no harm and that your motivation is sincere can help reduce anxiety in ordinary daily situations." (Emphasis via italics belongs to the original authors.)

I found these helpful. I've already done something today that I was dreading dealing with, and these notions helped me cope. But now I sound all touchy-feely, so I won't post on this subject again. For awhile. It'll come back, I'm sure, being who I am and all. Thanks for your patience.

Karen Hays on Writing (and Everything Else)

Karen Hays: "Writers on Writing #3" at the Passages North blog: WOW!

Waste no more time on this blog; link to the above immediately. You won't be sorry!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fear of (fill in the blank)

So last night I was reading a book of interviews, in which Coleman Barks quoted the following of his own translation of Rumi:

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances.
That’s not for human beings. Move within,
but don’t move the way fear makes you move.

When I read that, immediately I realized that given the issues I have been struggling with recently, I have begun to do exactly that: move the way fear makes me move. So how exactly do I escape that impulse, I wondered. Then I remembered this aphorism from James Richardson's Vectors:

121. The worst part of fear is not knowing what to do. And often you only have to ask What would I do if I were not afraid? to know what to do, and do it, and not be afraid.

So that's the new plan. Again. 

And since I was thinking of fear, I looked up a few random other quotes about fear that have been meaningful to me over the years. Here they are:
Let go of grief. Let go of joy. Let go of hope. Let go of fear. Let go of history. Let go of coming and going. Let go of culture. Let go of waiting. Let go of letting go.  
Rudolph Wurlitzer from Hard Travel to Sacred Places

I wanted to find one law to cover all of living. I found fear.
Anne Carson from "The Anthropology of Water"
 ...remember fear for what it is: a resistance to the unknown.
Terry Tempest Williams

When I was in my 20s, a friend said to me, "You are fearless. You'll try anything." I had to explain to her that in fact I was consumed with fear. Getting out of bed in the morning caused great anxiety in me. But since everything made me afraid and anxious, I didn't distinguish between experiences that made people with normal fear responses feel fearful and everyday situations that caused worry in me. Since on any given day I had already overcome 58 other fearful situations before being asked if I wanted to do something that would make a person with a good grip of reason feel fearful, I would think, Yeah sure, I'll try it; what's one more terrifying thing to try today?

Somewhere along the line I lost that ability to manage my distress. But I've got to get it back. Fear, my one constant. You think I'd be better at this by now.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chase is On

As part of Rattle's newest issue themed "Buddhist Poets," the journal offers an interview with poet Chase Twichell. If you want to read an excerpt, they offer one in their always-free always-interesting online eIssue (no.11), beginning on page 28.

And if it's not too silly to say this, here's an excerpt (or two) from that excerpt:

"Well I think one of the dangers of writing for a long time is that you become more and more conscious of what you’re doing, which eventually becomes a kind of reflex of self-consciousness so that you start to write something and you think, “That’s no good,” and you censor yourself, you pause, and it’s very hard to just put the stuff out there and worry about it later...."

" that point I started working on the computer instead of longhand. Because I used to keep every draft, in case there might be some gem in there that I’d overlooked, and I’d go back five years later and think, “Oh, I really was a genius, I just didn’t know it at the time.” And basically I go back through that old stuff and that’s just what it is, the throwaways; that’s where they should have gone. And so I began to work on the computer , which I’d never done before, and it meant letting go of things all the time, just as part of writing. “I don’t like the way this is going, am I going to stick with it?” “Nope, gone.” Or just getting to a sticky part in a poem, being able to make the choice between saving it for later, throwing it away, or working it into the poem. And so I have two notebooks. One of them is called “The Compost,” and that’s where all those little scraps that might develop into something go, and usually that’s where they stay, although every once in a while I will be able to use something somewhere or some snippet will turn out to be the seed of another poem. And then there’s one called “The Orphanage,” which is for polished, perfected bits in poems that look like poems, sound like poems, but are really fake poems. They all go live in the orphanage and I hope someday I can adopt some of them but so far they’re all still in there."

Love Chase Twichell, love Rattle. Enough said.

Murakami Interview

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has done an in-depth interview with The New York Times Magazine. (Thanks to my virtual friend Chris for passing along the link.) The interviewer Sam Anderson has done an excellent job of not only portryaing Murakami's uncanny blend of detachment and depth, surrealism and the ordinary, but also in capturing the Tokyo that Murakami lives in, which is not the one he writes about.

Anderson writes, "I had always assumed — naively, Americanly — that Murakami was a faithful representative of modern Japanese culture, at least in his more realist moods. It became clear to me down there, however, that he is different from the writer I thought he was, and Japan is a different place — and the relationship between the two is far more complicated than I ever could have guessed from the safe distance of translation."       

And here's what Murakami in his inimitable style says himself, “I live in Tokyo,” he told me, “a kind of civilized world — like New York or Los Angeles or London or Paris. If you want to find a magical situation, magical things, you have to go deep inside yourself. So that is what I do. People say it’s magic realism — but in the depths of my soul, it’s just realism. Not magical. While I’m writing, it’s very natural, very logical, very realistic and reasonable.” 

Anderson offers his interpretation of why Murakami's cultural references are almost always western, and rarely (some novels apparently have none) Japanese. Anderson writes, "You could even say that translation is the organizing principle of Murakami’s work: that his stories are not only translated but about translation. The signature pleasure of a Murakami plot is watching a very ordinary situation (riding an elevator, boiling spaghetti, ironing a shirt) turn suddenly extraordinary (a mysterious phone call, a trip down a magical well, a conversation with a Sheep Man) — watching a character, in other words, being dropped from a position of existential fluency into something completely foreign and then being forced to mediate, awkwardly, between those two realities. A Murakami character is always, in a sense, translating between radically different worlds: mundane and bizarre, natural and supernatural, country and city, male and female, overground and underground. His entire oeuvre, in other words, is the act of translation dramatized."

Questioned about his monastic and strict writing regime, Murakami responds, “Concentration is one of the happiest things in my life. If you cannot concentrate, you are not so happy. I’m not a fast thinker, but once I am interested in something, I am doing it for many years. I don’t get bored. I’m kind of a big kettle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I’m always hot.”  

I also learned that Murakami loves to iron, so we have one thing in common. I too love the repetitive soothing nature of ironing. Murakami loves baseball too, because "it's boring." His life-altering writing ephiphany came during a baseball game. Boredom, repetition, routine, who would have expected it from a writer of such bizarre and surprising fiction? And yet, nothing Murakami says should be jarring, since you expect to be startled by him, after all these years of reading his fiction. But still, it is.

Enjoy the whole interview at the link above.


Friday, October 21, 2011

No Theme

I just read that D. A. Powell is placing his papers in Emory University's Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library. I've never researched using a writer's papers, so maybe this is a dumb question, but what are these papers? Early drafts, notes, journals, correspondence, that sort of thing? Doesn't he still need them? And doesn't he mind people going through them while he is still alive? Just wondering....

Also, Marie Howe is interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air today. Click on the link to hear her discuss the loss of loved ones, growing up in a large religious family, and all sorts of topics you can easily relate to (or I can, anyway). Hear her reading of a generous number of poems, including "What the Living Do," and you can read a few more poems at the NPR page, such as one of my favorites, "After the Movie."

There is no theme to today's post. No theme at all. Except poetry, that broad one.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Video Poems

Video poems have become more and more popular over the past couple of years. Today I found a website put together by poet Dave Bonta that has centralized many of the video poems available on the net. It's called Moving Poems, but he also lists other video poems sites you can use, if you scroll down and look on the right side of his homepage.

Bonta has the video poems broken into useful categories: animation, author-made, concrete poems, interviews, dance, to name a few of his categories. He also tends to comment helpfully on each video in text under the screen.

I had been aware of videos by Anne Carson, Todd Boss, Kate Greenstreet, Michelle Bitting, and Billy Collins before stumbling onto Bonta's site, and I had liked all the work that I had seen. Until now, and I still like plenty, just not all.

Below is the "Reticent Sonnet" by Carson. (I love all of Carson's video work. Look on YouTube for more great video poems by her, including "A Lecture on Pronouns in the Form of Fifteen Sonnets.")

And here's Todd Boss's "Icicles." (A couple of really nice Todd Boss poems that aren't on Bonta's website but which are on YouTube are "Don't Come Home" and "Poverty and Paint." In fact, Todd Boss has his own YouTube Channel).

And here's Billy Collins's "Forgetfulness."

The last video I will share today is from Kate Greenstreet. It's called "Cloth." I've not included the screen but only the link because Greenstreet uses the Vimeo format, and somehow Blogger seems to prefer YouTube. (In fact, look for more of Greenstreet's work on Vimeo, rather than YouTube.)

Watching more video poems from Bonta's site this morning, I realized I have much more mixed feelings about them than I had previously thought. Some of them resonate deeply with me, but others are at such odds to my reading of given poems that I cannot enjoy them, and even feel irritated by them. Some visual interpretations that are different from what I would have conceived stretch my imagination and challenge me, but others merely disappoint or worse, disgruntle.

I also find the use of music to be helpful only in certain combinations with voice, poem, and visual image. Sometimes the music overwhelms the music of the spoken voice, and really distracts me, whereas other times music enhances the general atmosphere of the poem effectively.

I also find I have a strong preference for the poem to be read aloud rather than presented in type or text as a visual element in the video. Particularly when the lines are fed to me slowly, I find that the rate usually does not match the rate at which I wish to read, and that is highly frustrating. I lose the line in my frustration.

I am cranky, or what?

So, do you have any favorite video poems to recommend?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

First Books: Shane McCrae

If you have recently published your first book, or if your working on the manuscript to what you hope will be your first book, you are probably familiar with the interview series by Keith Montesano (who took over for the amazing Kate Greenstreet) called First Book Interviews.  It's largely a nuts-and-bolts discussion series about getting published rather than a literary endeavor, but for those writers in the throes of finding a publisher or preparing a manuscript, it's endlessly fascinating.

The current interview is with poet Shane McCrae, whose book Mule came out recently from Cleveland State Poetry. McCrae's writing makes me feel naked as the reader; I can only imagine what it does to him as the poet.

Here's an excerpt from the interview:

If you struck up a conversation next to someone seated on an airplane, and after a few minutes you eventually told them that you were an author who had a book of poetry published, how would you answer their next question: “What’s the book about?”

Ha! I can’t image ever doing that! But if somehow it got out that I had written a book, I would probably say, lamely, that it was about stuff that had happened in my life, because I would feel presumptuous saying that the poems were actually about what I tried to write them about. Like, I wrote a bunch of poems about God, for example, but how could I say such a thing? And if I said instead that those poems were about me trying to write poems about God, well, then that would just be me being a jerk. I would be very bad at this conversation.

And here are some links to McCrae's work online (sorry, I can't get this stupid bold type to turn off):

And if you enjoyed the interview with McCrae, check out other first book author's at the First Book Interviews website.

Shame, Dignity, & Writing

The Believer Magazine has published an interview with the young but prolific poet Ben Lerner, whose work I first found in the pages of the Beloit Poetry Journal, and whose career I have followed closely every since. Here is the portion of the interview that caught my attention today.


BLVR: Are there parts of yourself that you try to keep out of your writing?
BL: That’s an interesting question. It depends on what kind of writing. Generally I think I probably go at those parts of myself about which I might feel most ashamed or uneasy. Which is not to say I “write from experience” in any conventional sense, but certainly some of Adam’s [his character's] more contemptible aspects and his tendency toward a kind of self-contempt and anxiety shade into my own. I think there is a strong relationship between writing and shame. My friend, the brilliant Aaron Kunin, has organized much of his writing around the idea that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of can and perhaps should be used as material for art.


These days I have a strong interest in shame and dignity. The reason is that I had a terrible experience with a client about a week ago in which I was treated in an unprofessional manner, and my boss had to step in to stop the escalating situation. Even though it's now been resolved and the association with the client ended due to his own unreasonable behavior, I feel a persistent sense of shame at my inability to have handled the situation better, and a week later, I cannot get my centeredness back. I feel bereft, as though I lost something in the devastating exchange. And I suspect that what I have lost is my dignity.

Today I saw this article on "The Power of Dignity" by Donna Hicks, author of the recently published book Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict. In the article, Hicks says, "Everyone desires dignity. I believe that along with our survival instincts, it is the single most powerful human force motivating our behavior, and in some cases, I think it is even stronger. People risk their lives to protect their honor and dignity all the time. You violate people’s dignity and you get an instinctive reaction: people feel humiliated and get upset and angry. You violate people’s dignity repeatedly and you’ll get a divorce, war or a revolution."

Or the end of a client relationship. And a persistent loss of self-worth.

So what I want to do is to take that sense of pervasive shame that I cannot shake, that is leaking into my personal life, my writing life, and my sleeping hours, and make something of art out of it. Something I can share with other people who have had their dignity violated. Or have allowed their dignity to be violated (part of me persists in believing that I allowed this to happen to me...I want to take responsibility it, because that means I can stop it from happening again. Theoretically, anyway. Right now I cannot stop it from happening over and over in my memory, though it is temporally over, this incident anyway.)

It's good news that a poet I admire as much as Ben Lerner finds shame and writing to be so closely linked. Good news for me, anyway, during these recent days of shame.

PS Don't you think an ampersand looks weird with the Oxford comma (see title of post)? Maybe that combination is never supposed to happen. If so, I guess I'll have to give up the ampersand, as my devotion to the Oxford comma runs very deep.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Existence of Poets

Being a poet is to know you do not exist by poetry. ~David Ignatow


Monday, October 17, 2011

Japan Writers Conference Report

Last weekend was the 2011 Japan Writers Conference in Kobe (my fair city), and I was pleased to attend the Sunday session. Unfortunately, family demands kept me from going on Saturday, so I missed a few presentations that I had really hoped to see. David Gilbey's Poetry Workshop is one I had wanted to attend, and John Gribble's presentation about writing away from the self and avoiding excessive cleverness sounded like it was tailor-made for my problems. I also had hoped to hear Jane Singer's and Winifred Bird's pitch workshop; who doesn't need help writing a successful pitch! Juliet Winters Carpenter's workshop on team translation addressed a field I am just now developing an interest in, so I'm really sorry to have missed it.

On the other hand, I attended a number of great presentations on Sunday. First I went to Gregory Dunne's lecture on Cid Corman, the longtime Kyoto resident and poet. I had met Corman once in his (shall we way) declining years, and was glad to get a more rounded view of his talents and history from Dunne, who is working on Corman's biography. Dunne's understanding of and sympathy for Corman's purity in artistic vision, which could sometimes seemed to have verged on the naive and egoistic, was a refreshing counterpoint to the first-hand impression I had gained of a poet whose direcness in his poetry I have always enjoyed.

Next I attended Li Jiang's workshop on synaesthesia. I've blogged about synaesthesia before, and was able to find out from Jiang that my emotional reactions to numbers and shapes, while not  sensory, could still be considered synaesthesia. We practiced writing an orchestral piece as dialogue, and used paintings to evoke character sketches.

Next I went to Rebecca Otowa's speech on writer's block, during which she discussed (from first-hand experience) cycles of thinking that lead to writer's block. She also recommended points in the cycles from which exiting the insanity was possible.

The last presentation I went to was Hugh Ashton's on self-publishing, concerning which he is an expert due to having published three novels himself.

I had wanted to attend Ann Slater's workshop on writing set in Japan, but it was concurrent with my own workshop on erasure (which went pretty well, I thought. Lots of enthusiastic participation, if that's any gauge). I'm hoping that Slater will present again next year and I can attend. I've heard such great things about her intelligence and talent.

Anyway, thanks to converence organizers John Gribble and Bern Mulvey for a very nice conference. Looking forward to next year's!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Writers For Occupy Wall St.

If you want to see the growing list of writers who support Occupy Wall Street, click here. You can even query to be added to the list by submitting your information at the bottom.

Friday, October 14, 2011

More Notebook Notes

You may recall a month ago or so  I mentioned that Kay Ryan doesn't carry a notebook around, while other writers (I cited Will Self) find  constant access to a notebook to be a necessary part of their writing process.

Now Charles Simic has weighed in on the notebook issue at the New York Times Review of Books blog. However, Simic is more interested in the place of actual paper pads in this age of digital notebooks and phones that record any information we want to keep.

Simic writes: "...on a cold January morning, I once asked a fashionably dressed middle-aged woman, standing outside a building on Madison Avenue smoking a cigarette and shivering, whether she had a pen I could use. She didn’t think this was an odd request and was happy to oblige me. After she extracted a pencil not much bigger than a matchstick from her purse, I took out a little notebook I carried in my pocket, and not trusting the reliability of my memory, wrote down some lines of poetry I had been mulling over for the previous hour, roaming the streets. Today, she’d probably be staring at an iPhone or a blackberry while puffing away on her cigarette and it would not cross my mind to bother her by asking for a pencil."

Like Simic, I am a big fan of notebooks. I always have one in my bag, and  I shop for those based on durability, since they get banged up quite a bit on my travels and outings. Then I have a notebook at home for my poems, and another notebook for any commercial writing ideas that I have, and a notebook for notes on novels I have partially written. And I have all my notebooks going back to college, one a year or so. I have lugged these overseas a number of times, stored them at actual expense, and now have them under my bed. Why? I don't know. Every once in a while I think about tossing them out; I hardly refer to them ever. I fully intend to have them all destroyed before I die, so why do I hang onto them now? I couldn't say, but I suspect Charles Simic would understand my inclination.

How about you? Do you use notebooks, or have you gone completely digital? Do you store old notebooks or do you jettison them eventually? Thoughts on notebooks welcome.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Emancipate Your Manuscript

Here's something I wish I'd had access to before putting my book together. It's a blog post by Jeffrey Levine, editor and publisher at Tupelo Press, giving advice on how to put your poetry manuscript together. Among the 27 different points he makes (some of them long paragraphs even), there is advice concerning big issues such as theme and artistic integrity,  and moving down to medium-sized considerations such as ordering the poems and choosing a manuscript title, to small details including adverbs and spell-checking.

Here's a sampling of his wisdom:

2) Every time we write a poem we announce to the world what we think a poem is. The poems you write when urging – wittingly or unconsciously – a particular aesthetic are the ones that belong in the same book. Spread all of your poems out on the floor, a floor that doesn’t need to be disturbed (easy for me to say, I know) and look at them. Read them. Live with them for days and days. See what relationships seem to be developing between the poems....Where do you see common images developing? In what directions do your various threads lead? What seem to be your concerns as a poet during this period of creativity, and how do they seem to want to group....

3) When ordering poems in your manuscript, pay no attention to which poems have been published (and where), and which poems not. At the conclusion of contests, I often (call me perverse) go back and look at the acknowledgment pages of finalists and semifinalists. I find that most poets place an inordinate and mistaken reliance on their publishing history in ordering poems (or in deciding to include certain poems). Many of us assume that because a journal editor smiled on a particular poem that it must be better than the poems not taken, or that a poem taken by Poetry or Agni must be better than one taken by a less well-known print or online publication. I am almost always amazed—amazed—on learning which poems have been taken and which not, and by whom. Nothing could be less relevant to creating a manuscript than whether and where the individual poems found a home. If you believe in your poems, and if you have good reason for believing that they belong together in a particular manuscript, then include them, and order them according to your own aesthetic judgment. Period.

11) Less is more. Keep your manuscript in the area of 48-64 pages – show your reader that you’ve done the important work of weeding and pruning.

15) Proof for the Big Abstractions (i.e., “infinity,” “eternity,”) – the 19th century is over.

16) Proof for small abstractions (i.e., “dark”) – the 19th century is still over.

20) Do you tend to sew up your poems with something willfully plangent (poetic with a capital “P”) or a Yoda-like dollop of wisdom?

21) Do you tend to begin your poems with a line or two (or an entire stanza) of throat clearing?

22) Re-read the two preceding questions. Pretend for argument’s sake that you’ve answered yes to both. Now look at each and every poem with fresh eyes and ask yourself: a) Where does each poem really want to start? b) Where does each poem really want to end? Make no mistake: these are deeply artistic matters we’re talking about, here masquerading as craft questions.

24) Don’t include dedications and thanks on a contest manuscript—there will be plenty of time for that later.

At the link above, there's all that and so much more that I wish I had known to consider when assembling my manuscript. It comes from a person who reads 3000 to 4000 poetry manuscripts a year, so sit up and take note. I sure did (for next time...please, let there be a next time).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Matt Kish on PBS Newshour

Artist Matt Kish, whose book Moby Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Each Page that I raved about this summer even though the book is not yet out from Tin House, is interviewed at PBS Newshour Art Beat blog here.

An excerpt from the interview is below:

ART BEAT: By taking on this project you became more intimately involved with "Moby-Dick". Did you discover new things about the book or have new interpretations?

MATT KISH: Sometimes I feel it's easier to define my project more by what it's not than by what it is. It is certainly not an attempt to create the definitive "Moby-Dick". My illustrations are not even remotely historically accurate at all. Many of them are rather fantastic. The whole illustration project is an intensely personal exploration of the book and what the story is to me. Doing this project, though, was really the most personally intimate I had ever been with the novel and near the end it began to be really more of a mirror of myself and some of the things I had experienced, and what my life had been like so far, and how the book had been a companion to me throughout my life.

So in a sense these illustrations are just as much a representation of me as an individual as they are of the novel. And, you know, it took me to some pretty dark places at times. The book, near the end, is frightfully bleak and nihilistic and it exposed some of those elements inside myself and really made me confront some of the things that had been plaguing me for a long time. It really was an ordeal, it really was a long journey. But by finishing, I really feel that I was able to put some of those things to rest and close a part of my life and move forward.


For more of the interview, and to see a slideshow of 20 of the drawings and pages, click on the link.

Why I Write: Jane Hirshfield

The National Writing Project asks poet and practicing Buddhist Jane Hirshfield, a perennial favorite due to the clarity and poignancy of her work, about why she writes. Here is her response:


Why do I write?

I write because to write a new sentence, let alone a new poem, is to cross the threshold into both a larger existence and a profound mystery. A thought was not there, then it is. An image, a story, an idea about what it is to be human, did not exist, then it does. With every new poem, an emotion new to the heart, to the world, speaks itself into being. Any new metaphor is a telescope, a canoe in rapids, an MRI machine. And like that MRI machine, sometimes its looking is accompanied by an awful banging. To write can be frightening as well as magnetic. You don't know what will happen when you throw open your windows and doors.

Why write? You might as well ask a fish, why swim, ask an apple tree, why make apples? The eye wants to look, the ear wants to hear, the heart wants to feel more than it thought it could bear...

The writer, when she or he cannot write, is a person outside the gates of her own being. Not long ago, I stood like that for months, disbarred from myself. Then, one sentence arrived; another. And I? I was a woman in love. For that also is what writing is. Every sentence that comes for a writer when actually writing—however imperfect, however inadequate—every sentence is a love poem to this world and to our good luck at being here, alive, in it.


To read responses from other writers to this same query, including Timothy Ferris (science writer), Pam Houston (novelist), Joan Didion (essayist), Terry Tempest Williams (nature writer), and Reginald Shepherd (poet) among many others, go to this link and scroll midway down the page.

And yes, I do realize I am probably preaching to the choir here.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Diagram This

Posting yesterday's schematic reminded me of one of my favorite online literary journals, Diagram, edited by the truly original Ander Monson. Not only does Diagram feature cutting-edge writing, it also has a section entitled "Schematics" in every issue, in which you can find random charts, tables and pictures, like this one from Issue 10.5, called SPECTRAL TRANSMISSION OF HUMAN CHEEK AND OF CLEAR AND COLORED GLASSES (Matthew Luckiesh, Applications of Germicidal, Erythemal, and Infrared Energy, D. Van Nostrand Co., 1946):

The human cheek? Really?

(J. D. Macdonald, Derek Goodwin, and Helmut E. Adler, Curiosities of Bird Life, Castle Books, 1962), from Issue 5.5.

If it pleases you to see just about everything under the sun represented visually (or in an attempted visual representation), if you are as fond of graphs and tables as I am, check out this online magazine. Oh, and don't forget to read the experimental writing Diagram features too.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sound Advice

If you follow me on Facebook, you may have seen this already. But I want to put it here in my blog, where I'll run across it now and then, and remember:

Gently Read Lit.

Gently Read Literature, an online journal of criticism on poetry and literary fiction, is a joy to both look at and read. Including beautiful artwork in its pages, this journal also offers essays and criticism in an online form that almost makes you forget you are reading virtually.

This month, Rita Mae Reese reviews Shane McCrae's Mule (Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2011), a book I have coveted ever since reading some of his pieces in a number of journals. Maggie Nelson's The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (W.W. Norton, 2011), which is the talk of everyone who loves books these days, is discussed by Daniela Olszewska. Lynne Tillman's latest work is also covered in the October issue.

If you enjoy literary criticism, this online journal is worthy of your attention. (You can also contribute as a reviewer, if you so desire. See their guidelines, and their list of books available for review.)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Utility of Poetry

Leopold Froelich, executive editor of a men's magazine I would rather not have anything to do with promoting even by mentioning its name on my blog, has something to say about poetry in the October issue of Poetry Magazine. The quote starts now:

I am dismayed when I hear questions about the utility of poetry. How do you use poetry, and what is it good for? This is odd. Poetry is song. No one asks, What use is song? What use are birds? Poetry has no use. It matters because of its inutility. “Poetry is not a form of entertainment,” wrote Brodsky, “and in a certain sense not even a form of art, but our anthropological, genetic goal, our linguistic, evolutionary beacon.”

People go out of their way to ignore this beacon today, but they do so at their own peril. “By failing to read or listen to poets,” Brodsky wrote in “An Immodest Proposal,” “a society dooms itself to inferior modes of articulation—of the politician, or the salesman, or the charlatan—in short, to its own.”

Maybe Brodsky had this right, and this is the highest purpose of poetry, or song: It keeps us from listening to fools.


Poetry's inutility is what makes it invaluable; it is what saves me.

By the way, did you know the entire contents of the current issue of Poetry Magazine (as well as archives of back issues dating from 1912) are available online? Follow the link to enjoy their generosity, especially appreciated by those of us living abroad who get our magazines 2 months late.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Advice from 25 Writers

Jocelyn K. Glei has assembled tips from 25 writers on writing habits, organizing your projects, feedback, second readers, getting stuck, outlines, etc. at the blog 99% by Behance.

A few that felt relevant to me were:

Haruki Murakami: On building up your ability to concentrate...In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

Geoff Dyer: On the power of multiple projects...Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it's a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It's only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I'm bunking off from something.

Annie Dillard: On things getting out of control...A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight... it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, ‘Simba!’

Cory Doctorow: On writing when the going gets tough...Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement.

Enjoy all the quotes at the link above.

Paper Sculptor Scooped

The mysterious maker of the paper sculptures that have been popping up all over Edinburgh has been identified. But neither you nor I are going to be told the identity of the crafty bibliophile. At least not yet.

The Edinburgh Evening News has managed to track down the artist, but has agreed not to divulge the identity to the public, just to boast about it in their own pages. Nyaaa Nyaaa na Nyaaa Nyaaa, I know a secret, they say to us.

Let's see how long this stays a secret. (It's kind of fun though, huh?)

Mysterious paper sculptures

Thursday, October 6, 2011


This picture of 'bookstairs' is making the rounds on Twitter these days:

It seems to come from a website showing lots of innovative bookshelves.

Living here in Japan where any kind of space is a luxury, I drool.....

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Preference for Plosives

Recently I’ve been reading the poetry of Marie Ponsot, and have been thinking about her use of sound, particularly of words that sound similar to one another.

I have always had a secret preference for the plosive sounds, particularly for “ch,” “k” and “p.” In fact, when I’m alone I will sometimes chant words containing those sounds, just for the pleasure of it: Ketchup, check-up, Chekhov, cupcake. Chopstick, Chapstick, Chippendale, I might say. Chewbacca, Chickpea, chickadee, Pekinese, Peking duck, pickup truck. (And actually, “ch” is an affricate, beginning like a plosive and moving into a fricative, or so I’ve been told.)

When  I started studying Japanese, I rejoiced to learn more words containing these sound: chikuwa (a fish paste food), Pikachu (a Pocket Monster).

One night shortly after I married my husband, I was having trouble sleeping. He, on the other hand, was breathing deep measured breaths. So in the darkness I began my litany, “Picnic, chickory, patchwork, pitchfork, Chappaquiddick. Chapel, cheapskate, chocolate chip, Chippewa.”

“What are you saying?” said my husband suddenly.

Oops. So I hesitantly explained my preference for certain sounds. “What?” exclaimed my husband. “It’s not enough you have favorite numbers? You have to have favorite letters too?”

“Actually, it’s the sounds, not the letters,” I said, offering the consonant digraph example of “ch,” and the fact that the “k” sound can be represented by letters c or k, or by the consonant blend ck, as examples of that distinction. My husband was silent for a short while.

“Okay,” he finally said.

“It’s fun. You should try it,” I offered.

“No, thanks,” he said, going back to sleep. But he did go out and buy me a Pikachu doll that says its own name when you squeeze its stomach. “Pikachu. Pi-pikachu,” it says, to my delight. Now my kids’ friends come over, and sometimes ask if they can take the Pikachu doll home. “Sorry, you can’t,” they are told. “It’s our mom’s.”

So, sounds. As a source of pleasure. Which ones work for you?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Japan Writers Conference Website Updated

The Japan Writers Conference will be October 15 and 16 at Kobe Shoin Women's University in Kobe. The website has been updated to now include a map and access information, plus a revised schedule of presentations.

If you are planning to attend, be sure to check it out.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

What You Invent When You're Rusty

It's no secret I have a poetry crush on Rusty Morrison. If you'd like to get familiar with her work, here's the link to a short 10-minute reading she gave at the Babylon Salon. Or maybe you already adore her poems as much as I do. Then you will enjoy these selections she presents from Necessities and Inventions, as well as her new work about illness. (If you cope with chronic illness, may I especially recommend you finish the entire video?)

I actually found this originally at P&W's column, A Writer's Advice, but the link to the video kept crashing. Still, I have to give credit where credit's due. And you could still read the column if you clicked here. Also, the link might not crash on you, giving some credence to my sense of technological paranoia.

(Finally, a second silly title for this blog could be What You Need When You're Rusty. Ya think?)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Breeding and Brighting

The blog We Who Are About To Die has a great new interview with poet Mary Biddinger, and the title of the interview is "We who are about to breed." So guess what Daniel Nester talks with Biddinger about? That tricky combination of writing and parenting.

Here are a few excerpts:

How has your writing changed since becoming a parent?
"Now I treat writing like it’s something illicit, not another mundane item on my to-do list. This has been a huge help for my writing. Instead of putting it in the category that includes student recommendation letters and laundry, I let it be more like a secret addiction, or a hot, turbulent affair. I write when I’m not supposed to be writing. I do it on the sly."

How do you balance your time between parenting and writing?
" ....My trick has been to set boundaries between things, and to do my best to prevent overlap. If my kid is home vomiting, I won’t bring him to class with me while I teach. If my colleague needs non-emergency advice during my daughter’s softball game, it will have to wait. I designate work time, and home time. I do not answer my work email on the weekends. It took a while to establish these boundaries, but now they’re solid."

Check out the whole interview for advice on what baby equipment a writer needs, and which items no one needs. Great positive attitude (that's where the "brighting" in the silly title comes from) and sensible advice from poet Mary Biddinger.