Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Recognize These Puncs?

Here's a fun article called "Fourteen Punctuation Marks That You Never Knew Existed" over at (and a shout out to my virtual friend Kira who posted about this on Facebook).

Have a look and see how many of them you knew about previously. I knew 8 of them before reading the article. A few I wasn't familiar with are:

 The exclamation comma, for when you are excited, but also not finished.
Exclamation Comma

Also, the asterism, for indicating minor breaks in a text, or to mean "untitled," which is great since "untitled" is a title, but maybe an asterism isn't.
There's also the because sign, which is the flipside of the therefore sign, and I love that, just because!
Because Sign

And finally, the aptly named snark:
Enjoy all the punctuation you can, that's my motto!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Here's a fun poetry prompt that came in the November 24th issue of the Poets & Writers email newsletter, The Time is Now:


Use Google translator ( to experiment with the text of an existing poem (yours or someone else's). Translate the text from English into another language, such as Finnish, Urdu, or Korean, and then translate the foreign-language text back to English again. Observe the metamorphosis of syntax and diction as the poem travels through the filter of another language. Then look for a particularly striking phrase, an odd construction or image, and use it to begin a new poem.

I saw this done years ago by (I think it was) Juliana Spahr....I'm fuzzy on the details now, but as I recall (and this may be completely incorrect) she used translation software such as Babel Fish to translate something from English into a foreign language (dare I say Japanese, or is that my own particulars coloring my memory?) and then back into English. The disturbed syntax that resulted really was pure poetry. I think she used the entire translation as her poem, rather than mining the results as suggested above, but as I say, I could be completely wrong about who, what, when, where, and how in this story that isn't a story but half a memory, or less.

I used to sometimes use in my poems my sons' convoluted English that resulted from them being raised bilingually. Sometimes they said things that were just so delicious, I had to use them. As they get older and more fluent in both of their languages, we have fewer linguistic snafus, which is good for them, but sort of sad. They speak much less colorfully (but much more effectively) now.

Anyway, this idea from P&W looks like good fun. I'm going to try and mine it for some interesting lines to work with. If you try it and want to report (or share results), please do.

Monday, November 28, 2011

No Tell Tells

It's time once again for the blog No Tell's annual list of the best poetry books of the year. It's becoming a tradition for No Tell to ask various poets for their personal favorites and to post them for all to see.

I always enjoy finding out the picks of poets I  happen to like. In this way, I've stumbled upon many new names and more than a few exciting books.

Today Gary McDowell is featured, and as I admire his work hugely, I'm taking note of some poets on his list that I haven't read but will want to right away, such as David Dodd Lee, Amy Newman, and Zach Savich. (Happily just this morning I ordered David Bottoms' We Almost Disappear, which made McDowell's list.)

If the past few years have established a pattern, No Tell will post new lists by poets daily for about a month or so, so keep up if you want to know who's reading what to get some ideas of your own.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Returns on Effort

So I've been working on this poem for about 3 weeks. I thought it was done, and last night I had a "last" look at it, and ended up making six changes, two more or less substantial. And it's only a 15-line poem.

Then I turned my attention to a poem I jotted down the other day while waiting for my son to finish an activity. I expected it to need quite a lot of work, as it was only my second look at it. And it was done. It was whole, finished, integrated. The punch was there.

So there you go. There are no consistent returns on effort, are there? Not in writing anyway.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Confession

Here's a little secret I don't share with my artsy friends very often. I like to write on graph paper. Specifically I like to write poetry on graph paper.

I know this admission makes me look rigid and overly analytical. You probably wonder if I write neatly in all caps like many engineers do (I don't). I just find graph paper soothing.

My husband every year gets bombarded with calendars from pharmaceutical companies, and he always gets a dayplanner with graph paper as the blank pages from one certain company. Every year I claim this dayplanner as my own for writing poems in. My husband mentioned it to the drug rep, and ever since he has brought my husband two dayplanners each year, one for him and one for "his wife." But actually my husband dutifully hands both copies of the dayplanner over to me, hee hee.

Do you have any dirty little "non-poetic" secrets related to your writing practice? I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gailey on Getting Reviewed

Poet Jeannine Hall Gailey blogs about how to get your book reviewed here.  A veteran reviewer, Gailey tells how she and others who review poetry choose which books they will spend their time commenting on. Then she provides specific tips for bringing your book to a reviewer's attention, including: put a personal note in with the book copy you send to the reviewer, follow up later, and make suggestions about which literary magazines might be receptive to a review of your book.

Gailey's final tip was one that really hit home: be a reviewer yourself. Gailey admits that she is more motivated to review a book by a given poet when that person's website or blog (or personal note) mentions their own reviewing activity. Plus, it's one way of giving back to the literary community, whether anyone rewards you for it with a review of your book or not.

I have never written any reviews, mostly because it never occurred to me that anyone would value a review written by an MFA-less, poetry-self-educated person like myself. But now I am wondering if there is a place for a review by me somewhere.

Recently I have noticed a few journals that list books they have received for review and which they would be happy to send a volunteer reviewer.

Rattle's online review policy, for example, includes the following: "...we offer the E-Review forum. Almost anything goes here — reviews can be very brief or very long, they can be high praise or healthy criticism. If you read a book and you have a reaction, write up a review and send it in. We encourage the personal narrative in particular (see this note). We’ll screen for content and quality, and we won’t be able to put everything online, but if you have something useful to say, that others might want to hear, we will. Just follow the guidelines here, or request a book from this list. And if you’re just looking for a good book, go ahead and browse." This paragraph follows an explanation of why Rattle has gone to an all-online policy for reviews, including the spatial problems print issues face in reviewing more than a few books, any chapbooks at all, or prose books.

Another journal that I noticed as offering review copies to people willing to review is Verse Wisconsin, whose reviewing guidelines you can find at this link. Scroll to the bottom of the page for guidelines, and look to the right column (beginning at the top of this page) for a list of books available for review.

I'm sure there are many other journals that would be happy to have reviewers volunteering their services. I've only started keeping my eye out for them recently, so these are the first ones I've run across. If you've had success placing an unsolicited review with a journal, let us know!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

The Poetry Foundation has put together a list of Thanksgiving-related poems (both those with Thanksgiving as a direct topic, and those about family and fellowship and Thanksgiving-like emotions), including this one by Albert Goldbarth:

By Albert Goldbarth b. 1948 Albert Goldbarth

We know far more about the philosophical underpinnings of Puritanism than we do about what its practitioners consumed at countless meals.
—James Deetz

Yes. So we must reconnect
ideas of God, and the definitions of “liberty,”
and the psychology of our earliest models of governance, with
oyster peeces in barley beer & wheet,
chopt cod & venyson seethed in a blood broth,
hominy pottage, also squirell.
Their heads might well have brimmed with heaven
and its airborne personnel, but still their mouths were a mash
of white meat [cheese] and a motley collation
of eel leavings, a fine samp, and a roast Fowl.
Worshipp first, then after—butter Biskuits!
David Ignatow:
“seeking transcendence
but loving bread”

And it is too easy to get lost in abstraction,
as if smoke, and dream, and quantum ersatz-states
are our proper environment... it’s easy to conceptualize in “politics”
and not in the clack of the black or white dried bean we drop in the voting bowl. In some tribes, there’s a designated   “reminderer,” and when the shaman novitiate—or sometimes
simply a mournful family member—follows the star trail
into the country of ghosts, and lingers there, this person tugs
the wanderer back home: perhaps a light thwack
with a broom-shock, or the rising steam of a broth that one
can hungrily shinny down to Earth like a rope.
In the Mesopotamian Inanna myth, it’s water and bread
that resurrect the goddess and allow her
to begin the long ascent out from the craters of Hell.

We can spend all day, and many days, and years, in theorizing.
“A Computer Recreation of Proto-Hominid Dietary Intake:
An Analysis”
... we’ll float off, through these foggy lands of argot,
in the way that someone else might dissolve in the blue cloud
of an opium den... no wonder there’s such pleasure in uncovering
the solid fossil record of those appetites, and in emptying out
its evidence grain by grain, a stone piƱata. How often
the stories bring us back to that grounding! In 1620,
a first exploratory party from the Mayflower went ashore
on the northern Cape Cod coast. The weather was bad
and disorienting: a half a foot of snow, in air
so thick as to be directionless. But we sense they recouped
their spirits that night, from three fat Geese
and six Ducks whitch we ate with Soldiers stomackes.


And it is too easy to lose ourselves in cyberthink,
untethered from the touchable, from even the cohesive force
suffusing through one atom. “What we keep,”
reports an archivist at the New York Times, “is the information,
not the paper”... everything e-storaged now.
A thousand years of pages, pffft: dismissiveness
as obliterative as a bonfire, in the long run. Oh, yes,
easy to cease to exist as an actual shape, inside the huge,
occluding mists of legalese: we say “repatriation
of native archeological remains,” and we mean
human bones, that’s what we mean: hard and dear
and contested. We say “ritual signifier of threat,” but
what the Narragansetts sent to the colonists at Plymouth
was a bundl of thair Arrows tyed about in a mightie Snake skin.

I died. And I was stolen
into a land of strangers—of not-the-People.
I floated all day, many days. And here
the ribs of my cage were empty: always
I was hungry, for the things that People need.
But this was not the sun, and this was not the soil,
of the People; and I was restless, I had no one
for between my legs, and no drum in my chest.
There was much war from this: the People
desired me back, they said “this one
is part of many-ones,” and after words and words,
their word was so. One day the breezes sent the fishes
and savory beaver parts, and I knew at last
that I was home: my mouth of my skull watered.


“When hegemonic identity-structures systemize cognition—” whoa.
There are times I think my friends might flimmer away in that
high-minded mush... and I concentrate, then, on the names
of those people from 1621, names that are true, specific
labor and specific, beautiful common things. Cooper.
Fletcher. Glover. Miller. Glazer. Mason. Carpenter.
Cheerfull Winter.
Oceanus Hopkins.
 Lydia Fish, Nathaniel Fish and Steadfast Fish, of Sandwich.
Zachariah Field, father, and daughter Dutiful Field.
Pandora Sparrow.
Who wouldn’t care to meet Peregrine Soule?
And who could wish to let go of this life
when faced by Countenance Bountie?

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Quirky Topics

Although I cannot see who checks my blog, I get statistics about what countries people are accessing it from, and which search words lead people to it.

There are some pretty quirky searches that end up here at Axis of Abraxas, many of them by people looking for poems on certain unusual topics. Here are a few that you might consider writing a poem about, if you don't have one already, because I can guarantee there is at least a small audience out there looking for such a piece:

thyroid poems
23-lb. turkey poems
poems on matryoshka dolls
mallard duck poetry
Japan disaster/Fukushima disaster poems
poems about ditching (this one comes up a lot, and I'm not sure what it means; I hope it isn't offensive.)

So there you go, some suggested topics with a ready-made audience.

It's Thanksgiving at our house today, so I am off to work on our bird. Happy Holidays to Everyone!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

First Lady's Poets

Michelle Obama is launching her new National Student Poets Program to select 5 high school students to act as poetry ambassadors for a year. These students will be selected from among the pool of pupils who have already been given a national Scholarship & Art Writing Award. Check out the details here.

Homes for Political Poems

First there was 99 Poems for the 99%, (which I blogged about here, and which is featuring the terrific Troy Jollimore today).

Then there was the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, (which I blogged about here).

Now I've leared about OccuPoetry: Poets Supporting Economic Justice. (Actually I'm not sure of the inception dates of any of these; this is the order in which I discovered them, not necessarily the order in which they came into being). This is a journal inspired by the Occupy Movement and edited by Katy Ryan and Phillip Baron.

OccuPoetry kindly lists other online poetry projects that are responses to the Occupy Movement. They include Occupy Together (videos of poetry readings at the various Occupy Movement locations).

I saw this kind of poetic response immediately after the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, earlier this year. Suddenly all over the internet there were anthologies seeking relevant work from writers in order to make books, the sales of which would go to benefit charities. As touched as I was by the drive of writers to use their gifts to help the victims, I couldn't help being a tiny bit cynical about the opportunities writers were getting to be published due to a disaster. Which is completely unfair of me....I wouldn't feel that way about an visual artist auctioning off works and donating the proceeds to charity; I don't criticize bands that give concerts for charity. But I couldn't help wishing there was a way to publish without receiving anything from it as an individual...which I know is not a valid concern (and not even effective for marketing and thus bringing in the cash for the donation; I mean, nobody would buy a book of poems by all anonymous authors, would they?) and I have mostly turned my head around on this point, but it still nags at me a tiny bit.

As though I should be judging anyone's motives; shame on me. This is really my own hangup as a chance to be published popped up in my mind when I saw these opportunities, and I hated that about myself. But I did feel that when a famous person gives a poem to an anthology for charity, that's real charity. When an unknown like myself does the same thing, there could be as much self-interest as charity in the gesture. And I feel kind of evil for even pointing this out, when probably most people were giving entirely out of goodness. Or mostly out of goodness. Or even equally out of goodness and self-interest. And really, it doesn't concern me at all in any case but my own, now does it?

On the other hand, in the Occupy Movement, in which the people are asking to have their voices heard, poetry is another venue for having your voice, the voice of the people, heard, in language that can be more memorable, more vivid, and more ceremonial than regular speech. This I feel more comfortable with, but should I? Is there a difference?

And really, why don't I just assume the best of other people and not think these things at all?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Erasure Links

Here are some of the links I provided for my Japan Writers Conference presentation on erasure. It might be useful to someone.

A.    A Humument by Tom Phillips 

B.     Wave Poetry (publisher of Mary Ruefle, and home of erasure software)

C.     Mary Ruefle’s “The Mansion”

D.    Mary Ruefle’s “Marie”

E.      video from Free Verse: Erasure Poetry Festival:

F.    The Found Poetry Review

G.    Filter Literary Review

H.       One Drawing of Every Page of Moby-Dick, blog of Matt Kish, artist with a book of a similar title forthcoming from Tin House Books

I.       Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States (Cornell University, as of January 2011)

J.    Public domain books online:,

K.     Collaborative erasures:

                    L. Use of government documents:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Science Pods

Stephen King tells would-be writers to read widely, read everything. Kay Ryan reads philosophy to get started writing. Reading outside of one's genre can be as important as reading within it (and I do believe that reading poetry is an extremely important part of writing poetry, but so is reading other stuff).

I've found that reading popular science helps me write poems. It provides me with images and vocabulary, and with just plain wonder that stimulates creativity.

In the past couple of years, I've started listening to science podcasts in addition to my reading regimen. Reading is still better, but since I walk for a couple of hours a day, this is a way to make the time productive and enjoyable. And since I miss hearing the English of native speakers at an adult level, podcasts also comfort me.

So today, I want to share some of my favorite science podcasts. (All of these are available in iTunes, by the way, as well as at their links.)

1) My absolute favorite is Radiolab, but I've blogged about it already, so I will just link to my old post and leave it at that for now. Sadly new episodes come out only twice a month.

2) Another good one is Science Friday with Ira Flatow. For two hours every Friday, Ira Flatow podcasts about diverse topics in science and technology, interviewing all the people in the know regarding timely science topics. For example, this week's podcast has Ira discussing World Toilet Day and interviewing engineers about the grants being given for revolutionary toilet designs that might bring the technology to the 1/3 of the earth's inhabitants without flush toilets or healthy sanitation. Flatow also learns the secrets of keeping the floats afloat in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade by sending his video editor to interview the "balloonatics". He also investigates the costs of embryonic stem cell research. And more!

And here's a hint. If instead of subscribing to the Science Friday podcast, you instead subscribe to the NPR Topics: Science podcast, you will get all science-related podcasts aired by NPR sent to you, including Science Friday in individual story units instead of a 2-hour block, so you can skip ones you aren't interested in.

3) Stuff You Should Know podcast, hosted by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, covers topics in science and any other field that suits the fancy of the hosts. Diverse subjects covered in the past include: the chemistry of Silly Putty, sweating colored sweat, the physics of roller coasters, how fossils are formed, etc. This podcast is twice a week, but as I said, while not all topics covered are science-related, they are all more or less fascinating.

4) NPR's Hmmm.....Krulwich on Science is one of my favorite science podcasts, but it comes out too infrequently, not even once a month and not on any schedule I can fathom. It's an insightful look into the history of science as well as science stories that cause you to marvel (this being Krulwich's specialty), and I envy you because you can now enjoy the few in the archives for your first time. Happily, Krulwich's blog, Krulwich Wonders, comes out more regularly.

5) Story Collider is a cross between The Moth and a conversation with your chemistry lab partner. It's people telling stories about how science has affected their lives, and many of the stories are hilarious, especially to scientists and PhD program dropouts. This is a fun podcast, with some talented storytelling, and some less so, but it's worth wading through them all to find the absolute gems.

6) Finally, TED Talks, which you undoubtedly already know about. TED stands for technology, entertainment, and design, so you will hear plenty of science-related pieces if you listen. Pretty much everything discussed at TED is interesting, science-based or not.

So, enjoy!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Random Notes

Today I have a bunch of unrelated odds and ends for you, in random order.

First is the compilaton of rejection letters at Flavorwire. Be heartened when you read a truly amusing rejection letter addressed to Gertrude Stein, as well as some rather soulless letters to writers such as Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath, and Peter Mathiessen.

Next, Salon has an interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem.

Third, Occupy Wall Street has a poetry anthology. Apparently all submissions are accepted (?). Click on the link to see how to submit, and to read the 400+ page PDF file that is the anthology.

Fourth, Nikky Finney, a poet I only discovered earlier this year, has won a National Book Award for her fourth book, Head Off & Split. I link to an earlier National Book Foundation post that has her listed only as a finalist so you can read a sample poem there. It was through an excellent podcast interview that I learned of Finney and her exemplary work, but I cannot remember which podcast it was now. If I find it, I will post it later, as you really should get to know this poet, if you don't already.

Finally, I thought I would update you on my own memorization project. I have memorized the five poems I mentioned earlier this month (three of which were re-memorizations, or fixing the poems in my brain). I have now nearly memorized a sixth, Li-Young Lee's One Heart (a good short one for encouragement) and have begun Edward Hirsch's Self-portrait.

Over and out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Taking Risks

I'm not a big risk-taker. That's what I say, it's how I feel. But if you look at my life, you will see all kinds of crazy risks that I've taken again and again, big ones. I went to a grad school that far outstripped the preparation I had from my undergrad school, went directly into competition with other students who had highly priveleged private school educations from preschool through Ivy League colleges. And I went head-to-head with them. And did alright. One of them one day said, "You're not much of a risk-taker, are you?" and I answered, "Well, I'm here, aren't I?" And he answered, "Yeah, seriously. I hadn't thought about it that way." What was for him a given next step was for me a huge risk.

And I live abroad, in an international family, we just opened a small business last month, we have serious health issues that are life-altering, and we face risk after risk. And sometimes I'm pretty tired.

But this sense of being on the edge (as well as just plain being on edge) all the time is good for something: poetry. Jeffrey Levine discusses how risk-taking and the willingness to put danger on the page is often the difference in the diction between an almost-finished poem and a successful poem here.

Here's a quote: "It takes a special sort of nerve to spell (just enough) the connection between the imagery (symbols) of the outer world and what the poet wants us to take from that imagery about how that imagery enhances, reflects, refracts and intensifies the poet’s inner landscape./ How overtly drawn does this correspondence have to be? I think the answer is: just overt enough so that readers can feel the risk taken. Whether or not a reader actually feels the danger on the page depends entirely upon whether the poet has provided us with sufficient correspondence between description and metaphor on one hand, and what’s human, on the other. There must be that ineluctable tension between what we understand abstractly and what we feel concretely. Without that kind of correspondence (and corresponding tension) there’s no felt urgency. Without those risks, the description and metaphor, no matter how well turned, turn merely symbolic. Without sufficient evidence of that correspondence, a symbol is just a symbol, stripped, then, of its power, like an electric circuit whose wiring reaches a dead end: the light won’t go on. Sound and fury are fine, so long as they signify something. Within this correspondence—this levering—the real work of the poem gets done."

Read the entire piece to see an analysis of Louise Gluck's poem "Mock Orange" and its use of urgent diction to draw a correspondence between its metaphors and its emotional content.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


The Walt Whitman Award (first book publication prize from the Academy of American Poets) deadline has been extended to December 1. I don't have a manuscript ready, so I haven't been paying attention to deadlines and don't know when the original one was. But whenever I hear news of a deadline extension, I think it might possibly be an opportunity. My reasoning is that the deadline might have been extended due to a lower-than-hoped-for number of submissions, leading perhaps to a better chance of rising to the top.

Is that the conclusion everybody else jumps to when they hear of a deadline extension? Or is it just me? Maybe it's just a marketing ploy to get more manuscripts and collect more entry fees. Maybe I'm just super naive (okay, not maybe, but once again...)

I wish I did have a manuscript ready, since I would LOVE to think there was a chance that judge Jane Hirshfield would see my work (although I'm no longer eligible for first-book contests, so never mind).

And what kind of word is deadline anyway? We're under enough stress due to actual deadlines; you think we'd name it something more....forgiving? Less daunting? Or maybe it's good to just express our stress in our vocab.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fixing the Fixings for Thxgvg

We're going to celebrate Thanksgiving on the 23rd, a Wednesday, because it's a national holiday here in Japan. That's just over a week away, and I am late starting the shopping this year.

It takes many trips to many different stores in Japan to procure all the fixings a Thanksgiving dinner requires. Plus we don't have a car. So I can only haul home what I can carry in my own two arms and sling in canvas bags over my own two shoulders, and that has to be in addition to whatever we need for dinner that particular day. (And yes, I can get the groceries delivered, but last year the international market forgot to deliver my turkey the day I had asked, so it would arrive in time to defrost it, and was I in a panic, though I got it delivered and defrosted in time after all.)

Yesterday I got the turkey and the stuff for the blueberry muffins. The turkey is 11.08 pounds this year, one of our largest ever here. My tiny oven won't hold a turkey over 12 pounds, or so we think...we don't want to haul home a turkey just to find out it won't. Every year we inch closer to what we perceive to be our oven's limit. Last year I got one close to 12 lbs. but this year this one was the biggest under 12, so... One year I got a 5-lb. turkey. When I told my mom, she laughed and said it would be all bone. It was, pretty much. We could just get a turkey leg, I suppose, but somehow I need the hunk of turkey-shaped meat in the center of the table.

I hate stuffing, so my family has never had any. Instead I make a really wonderful Turkish Pilaf (recipe here), and my kids think it's called Turkish because we always have it with turkey. Last year (and again this year) there was a canned pumpkin shortage here, but my sister Jamie sent me her fresh pumpkin pie recipe, and I'll never use canned pumpkin again (well, maybe not never; if I have a lot of writing going on and there is canned pumpkin available, who knows...).

Anyway, everyday between now and next Wednesday, I'll be bringing home a few of the groceries I need for our feast. So that's what I'm thinking about today, whether with this late shopping start I'm going to be able to procure all the groceries in time without any days of double trips to the market...Not very poetic, but it's where my mind's at.

Monday, November 14, 2011


The discovery of the day is the online journal Defunct: A Literary Repository for the Ages, a biannual out of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program.

I, for one, love literary nonfiction almost as much as I love poetry (and at least as much as I love fiction), so I am delighted to find such a high-quality magazine devoted to this art. Featuring some of my favorite nonfiction writers including the form-bending Ander Monson, David Shields, and Sven Birkerts, this journal is the reason I haven't gotten much work done this morning.

Plenty of poets seem to also shine in this genre, including Lia Purpura, Mark Yakich, and Judith Kitchen.

Poet Daniel Nester's "Late Night Thoughts on My Dead Thyroid" should be required reading for anyone with thyroid dysfunction, or anyone who knows someone with thyroid dysfunction (and that's all of you, since you "know" me or actually know me).

Oh, and there's a theme: yes, you guessed it: things which are defunct (which is a rather nervy theme for an online journal, wouldn't you say?)

But we like nervy writing (if not nervy writers), don't we? (And yes, nervy writers too. We admit it.) In short, head on over to Defunct right away. (Or, as Kurt Vonnegut would have me say, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

99 Poems for the 99%

The title says it all: 99 Poems for the 99%.

This series is curated by poet Dean Rader.

Some poems come at current social and political (and economic) topics and realities head-on, some obliquely.

So far, the site includes poems by Edward Hirsch, Ellen Bass, Patty Seyburn, Matthew Zapruder, Dana Levin, Bob Hicok and more. Each poet briefly comments at the end of the poem as well.

Here's an explanation. You too can submit work here.


Yesterday in the Japan Times a talented journalist and friend of mine, Kris Kosaka, published an article about a project by "hafu" Japanese filmmaker Megumi Nishikura. "Hafu" is the Japanese word for people who have one Japanese parent and one parent from a country other than Japan. 1 in every 30 babies born in Japan today, including my own (though one of my kids was born in the US, so I'm not sure if that counts in the statistic), are either "hafu" or have two parents who are not Japanese.

Megumi Nishikura, who is a peace activist as well as a filmmaker, wants to explore the lives of "hafu" living in Japan, and show how they are finding ways to gain better acceptance by a culture that largely considers them not Japanese. This attitude is changing, in part due to people like Nishikura, who are working hard on public awareness. Her film "Hafu," in which she is collaborating with another "hafu" Lara Perez Takagi, is one such campaign.

To learn more about it, see the article or watch this short fund-raising video.

The original "Hafu Project," which began in 2008 and was a source of inspiration for Nishikura, can be linked to here. They provide statistics as well as a visual and sociological study of "hafu" people, and a discussion of many of the unique challenges that face these individuals, such as answering the seemingly simple question, "Where are you from?"

These are both great resources for families with "hafu" members. Consider supporting one of them today.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Books for Soldiers

Galleycat has compiled a list of seven ways you can share books with soldiers overseas. It's one good way to celebrate Veterans Day.

Also, one of my personal heroes (former poet laureate) Robert Hass was apparently "pushed around" by police at Occupy Berkeley yesterday. His family has issued a statement saying that he is okay.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Math Wow

Thanks to my niece Beth for this. Truly truly did not see this coming, and I should have!

How to Answer Kurt-ly

Flavorwire has a post with their 20 favorite quotes from Kurt Vonnegut, in celebration of his first authorized biography (And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: a Life, by Charles J. Shields), coming out today.

Here's a sampling:

“I had a friend who was a heavy drinker. If somebody asked him if he’d been drunk the night before, he would always answer offhandedly, ‘Oh, I imagine.’ I’ve always liked that answer. It acknowledges life as a dream.” — a “composite self-interview” in The Paris Review, 1977

“I don’t know about you, but I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment.’” — A Man Without a Country, 2005

“If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” — A Man Without a Country, 2005

“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” — quoted in “Kurt Vonnegut: In His Own Words,” London Times Online, 2007

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” — “Knowing What’s Nice,” In These Times, 2003

I've quote this last one on this blog before, but it's still a good idea. Cheers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gulf Coast Online

Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts now has an online edition, edited by my old Florida friend Will Donnelly (yay for Will!). The current edition includes poetry by Sherman Alexie, Alex Lemon, and Sharon Olds, and fiction by fellow expat Ann Tashi Slater, whom I was lucky enough to briefly meet at the Japan Writers Conference this year.

Click on the link to explore a sample of the current issue, and perhaps be inspired to subscribe to the online or print issues.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Parent's Reason for Creativity

So I was thinking about Justine Musk's 10 reasons to pursue creative work, and I realized I had one more reason, as a parent, to pursue my creative passions.

When I was working hard at getting my children to read, I read an article that claimed that the number one way to encourage children to read wasn't by reading to them (although that is important) but rather by reading in front of them, to yourself, in your free time. The article (which I wish I could cite but can't) argued that children who read have parents who read; the authors found a high statistical correlation between the two groups.

(And I guess I have done my part to make my kids readers. When one son was much younger, we were playing that silly game of "I love you more than ice cream sundaes," "Well, I love you more than a day at the beach," etc. when I said "I love you more than books." That brought my son up short. "Really?" he asked in a doubtful voice. "Of course," I assured him. "Just a minute," he said, and then he bounded away to boast to his brother, "Mom loves me more than books," which brought the second son running to ask, "Really?")

Anyway, I think the same principle applies to creativity. Rather than telling our children to go draw a picture while we finish answering emails for work, if we show them that creativity really is a value in our lives by devoting our precious free time to it, we are teaching them that it is okay, even highly desirable, for them to devote their time and efforts to creative projects as well.

I once read an article that said it was only natural that the children of actors tended to become actors, and the children of doctors to become doctors, etc., since becoming an actor or a doctor or any of a myriad of professions seems like a risky business against nearly impossible odds if you don't personally know an actor or a doctor; but if you know one, even live with one, it seems like a perfectly reasonable goal to want to be one. And the same is probably true for creativity; if you live with someone who expresses their creativity, it will seem perfectly reasonable to spend time cultivating your own.

My own mother used to do toll painting in the basement after putting us kids to bed at night. That made a huge impression on me, that she could have watched television, could have read a book, and surely must have been tired after spending the day caring for 8 kids, but she still went into the basement to paint.

So parents, here's yet another reason for you to commit time doing your creative work.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sugar House

I was checking out the Sugar House Review yesterday, and came across some exceptional poems in their sample poem section, including this one:

The Curse of Elbows in Birthmothers and Other Wayward Girls
by Jen Hawkins

There’s a crook
in my arm
He steals away
             leaves a crook
in my arm

I am always
not        holding


This is clearly a journal to watch (and subscribe to).

Make Way for Creativity

Justine Musk at her own blog has a post today entitled "10 Reasons Why Pursuing Your Creative Work is Actually Highly Productive ( + Not Selfish or Self-Indulgent)".

Here are a few of the reasons that I had not thought about before:

1) Carving time from your regular, ‘productive’ life to pursue a hobby or project that you’re passionate about means that you increase your chances of being in flow. (Go to Justine's blog to have this concept explained to you. She has a related post on giving yourself permission to pursue your creative projects as a way of garnering extra energy, rather than zapping your resources.)

2. Your happiness and well-being are contagious.

3. You are less likely to tolerate other people’s bullshit when your self-esteem DOES NOT DEPEND on their acceptance or approval.

There are seven other good reasons with explanations as well at Musk's website.

If you are feeling guilty about wanting to use time to be creative instead of "productive," link on over there and have your head turned around.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Reading Projects vs. Poems

So what should appear in my inbox the morning after I post about poems vs. projects from the writing perspective but a thoughtful discussion of the topic from a reader's perspective (and by this I mean not only a reader of poetry but also a reader of manuscripts for a contests) by the talented Erika Meitner over at

Meitner has been reading manuscripts for an unnamed book contest, and mentioned her preference this way: "...a poet-friend...posited that as an initial screener dealing with sheer volume, I would be influenced by the apparent coherence of ‘project books’—that I would gravitate toward sequences of poems because they seemed automatically like books...though both of us agreed that we...prefer books that offer the reader a variance in sensibility and approach. Which leads to my first (potentially false) dualism in here: there are ‘project’ books, and there are ‘mix-tape’ books." (She then sites a  post by Katrina Vandenberg at Poets & Writers where she got this musical metaphor originally, and where Vanderberg eventually offers the following advice: “Don’t get wrapped up in a book’s concept at the expense of its poems. We’ve all seen books so focused on a theme that their individual poems are as bloodless and forgettable as the songs on an Emerson, Lake & Palmer album.”)

Meitner says of her own work, "I am not a project-book poet. Part of this has to do with my own peripatetic sensibilities—I want to write about what feels most compelling to me at any given moment....And while my poems often hash over recurring themes (women’s bodies, consumerism, sex, loss, Judaism, etc.), they do it via constantly shifting subject material and landscapes."

This is, I think, inevitable for most writers, and I cannot find the quote I wanted to put in here, so if anyone recognizes it from my bad paraphrasing please let me know. Basically it was something like "Lucky is the writer who has an obsession. He has his life's work cut out for him." We write precisely because we are obsessive; it's difficult to find a poetry book that doesn't have recurring themes, so the question isn't whether a book has some cohesiveness but how much of it is there by design and how much of it is there by temperment, I suppose, and whether that split is obvious or carefully crafted enough not to be glaring.

And in that design lies the strength or the weakness. Or as Meitner says, "While having a project can certainly make a manuscript easier to grasp and remember from the start (“Oh, the villanelles about the life of Joe Namath—I remember that one!”)....More varied books can withstand a few weaker poems without the entire concept of the book being called into question. With more loosely structured books, there was always the possibility that I might turn the page, and find something totally different, shocking, or compelling."

Which doesn't mean the shocking and compelling poems are completely divorced from the previous ones; they are just not so tightly bound by the form of the book to be there only to serve the book, and not on their own merit.

If you are interested in this topic, Meitner cites an interesting post by Joel Brower over at Harriet the Blog, in which a long list of published books with themes is provided, with Brower concluding  finally (after a long and interesting discussion that would be well worth your time to read), "My question is this: Which comes first, the poems or the project? Do you write poems, and then try to figure out how/whether those poems are talking to each other in such a way that it might make sense to collect them all under one book’s roof? Or do you think of a project you’d like to do...and then write the poems to fulfill the promise of the project? Because the poems on that list up there could have come about, I suppose, either way."

And he talks about receiving the following advice from editor Stuart Frieberg when he told him about his project to write a book of poems with 100 words each, "Write 500 of them and then send me the best five to consider for FIELD.”

Which is, I think, the right answer. Yes, obsess. Yes, redo and redo as long as you are compelled to, and then winnow only the best out of the pile for publication. And if the book structure falls apart because there aren't enough poems to support it, then that's how it goes. You might not really be done with the manuscript yet.Or you might need a new structure (don't despair--Meitner cites the following two articles below that show you a myriad of different ways to organize a manuscript.)

1) Natasha Saje at Numero Cinq, where she states, "Asking contemporary poets how they begin the process of ordering their books produces a surprisingly uniform group of answers. Some principles of structure are balance and contrast; dynamic energy; surprise; breathing space/white space; a dialogue between intent and serendipity, or in Annie Finch’s words, between “tension and inevitability” (Heginbotham 113)." And she also cites Elaine Terranova as saying, "For me putting a manuscript together is a reductive process, somewhat the way I write a poem. I’m always flinging poems aside, once I’m convinced that they ‘do not get along well with the others.’"

2) Albert Rios at his own website has 19 ways to organize a maunscript, including schemes he calls Mosaic, Convergent Narrative, Last-line-First-line Dialogue.

Writing related poems as a strategy doesn't mean publishing related poems is the best strategy. Publishing only the best poems, related or not, is the strategy, while writing poems however you can to get the best poems is the strategy. And if writing related poems is what it takes to do that, great. But that doesn't necessarily mean publishing related poems, and it doesn't mean not doing it. Process is about creativity; publishing is about marketing. It would be naive to think they are not related in the long term, but counterproductive to think that they have to be, at least from the get-go.

Or anyway, that's what I take from this discussion.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Poems Vs. Projects

I like to read poetry books that are written with themes in mind, but I also enjoy books without any discernible theme, those that seem like a collection of poems, rather than a project. Both organizations have their beauties, their surprises, their intricacies.

But I have to admit I have a strong preference for writing poems in projects, or series, or cycles. I think it's because I'm an obsessive kind of person. I love repetition. I love to think about the same topic in depth for months. When I try a new method of writing, a new form, I tend to do it again and again. This suits not only my temperment, but also my time constraints. When I write lots of lines about a subject but end up pruning half of them out of a finished poem, if I am writing a series, I have lines to start the next piece. When I am following a very specific writing practice, or fulfilling certain rules I have set up for myself, I never begin with a blank page, but with some kind of direction. This not only pleases me, but spurs me on, saves me time I would otherwise spend floundering.

That's why I'm feeling a bit bereft these days. I have recently finished up a series of eight-lined poems that all came from the same process, the same set of limitations, and a vaguely related theme (there are six of these poems; I had meant to do eight eight-lined poems for that numerical echo, but at six it was clear to me that the series was done). Now this series is over, and I don't have another one devised for myself. So I thought I would try writing individual poems, ones that are not part of a series or cycle or project.

To that end, I have remembered the following two quotes, which give me some encouragement to just sit in my chair and wait to see what comes along.

It isn't necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don't even listen, just wait. Don't wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.

Arrange whatever pieces come your way.
Virginia Woolf

Happily I can do the first (well, after the boys go back to school, tomorrow being an extra day off, and assuming my workload keeps at an even level and doesn't experience a surge) now that my houseguest has left. As for the second, hmmmmmm. And will the first work? Do I really have faith that it will?

I know that given my temperment, if I do get a decent poem, I'm likely to develop it into a series by identifying which elements inspired me or seemed to do what I wanted them to do, or what I didn't want them to do but which surprised me. But right now I just want to get one single poem on its own.

What about you? Do you have a preference for either reading or writing poem projects or more individual poems?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bewitched by Ritual has an article on the daily rituals that helps/helped 25 great thinkers do their work. Some of the thinkers and their rituals include the following:

American writer John Cheever wore his only suit of clothing each morning as he rode the elevator down to a basement room where he worked. Upon arriving there, he would undress to his underwear, hang up his suit, and get to work. He would dress to go back upstairs for lunch and again at the end of his day when he would ride the elevator back home.

Stephen King, the famed writer, keeps to a strict routine each day, starting the morning with a cup of tea or water and his vitamin. King sits down to work between 8:00 and 8:30 in the same seat with his papers arranged on his desk in the same way. He claims that starting off with such consistency provides a signal to his mind in preparation for his work.

Whether or not he had heard the adage about keeping the doctor away, the writer of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas, started each day eating an apple under the Arc de Triomphe.

Gertrude Stein discovered inspiration in her car. Apparently she would sit in her parked car and write poetry on scraps of paper.

Ernest Hemingway described his writing ritual as starting just as the sun began rising, then working straight through until whatever he had to say was said. He likens completing his morning of writing to making love to someone you love–being both empty and fulfilled at the same time. Upon completing that morning’s work, he would wait until the next morning to begin again, going over his ideas in his head and holding on to the anticipation of starting again the next day.

When John Grisham first began writing, he still had his day job as a lawyer. In order to do both, he stuck to a ritual of waking at 5:00 and shower, then head off to his office, just five minutes from home. He had to be sitting at his desk with a cup of coffee and a yellow legal pad by 5:30. He gave himself a goal of writing one page per day. Sometimes this page went as quickly as ten minutes while other days required one or two hours. After finishing his daily page of writing, Grisham would then turn his attention to his day job.


For me, ritual is highly desired but hardly realized. Working freelance means I have to check my email everyday to see what work needs to be done immediately and what can wait, before I can plan my writing time. And I have kids who get sick, need special attention suddenly, etc. So while I adore ritual, it mainly eludes me.

That's why it's important to take into account what Toni Morrison had to say (also from :

Writer Toni Morrison describes not only her daily routine, but the importance of rituals to writers. Morrison describes her own ritual involving making a cup of coffee and watching the light come into the day. Her habit of rising early was first formed as the mother to three children, but after her children left home, she discovered a routine of her own–that still includes early mornings. Morrison urges all writers to look at what time of day they are most productive and what type of surrounding is most conducive to their work to help form rituals that will promote creativity.

I know how to get into the writing space in my head, but it takes me about an hour to get there, so that's not very efficient, and given my lifestyle, not realistic. I need to pay more attention to what makes me productive other than the one way I already know, so that I can work without such an extended detaching time. That might mean finding a different time of day, or a different way to signal to my brain that it's time to write. Hmmmm...So much to think about from all these great thinkers. Click on the link at the top of the post to see what other thinkers' rituals are/were.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Nagai on New Letters

Japanese poet and prose writer Mariko Nagai is the guest this week on New Letters on the Air, the podcast hosted by Angela Elam (scroll down to the picture and bio of Nagai to find the button you can click to listen online through November 16, or listen in iTunes anytime; you can also listen on their Facebook page). Originally I listened to this podcast because of the Japan connection, but I learned some interesting things about Nagai that I had not known.

One thing she said that has been on my mind this week is about silence. She doesn't use it to write. In fact, she says she listens obsessively to the same piece of music while writing something, singing away as she types.

She also talked about writing in English, though it is her fourth language (after Flemish, French and Japanese, in that order), but it was the language of her life from age 8 to 24, when she developed into her own personhood. This is  interesting to me as a mother of bilingual sons who are growing to personhood largely in a language which is not mine.

Nagai also discussed translating, which she does a lot of, but said she would never translate her own work, as it would necessarily become a different piece in each language if she were the translator, which is an interesting observation, since it implies that this doesn't happen (or happens to a lesser extent) when she translates others' work or when someone else translates hers.

To enjoy the entire interview, click on the link above.

Now for an update on my memorization project. I dug out my notebook from the last time I attempted this project, and found that I actually had a third poem memorized at the time, Czeslaw Milosz's If There is No God, which is a great poem to memorize because it's only five lines long and the key phrase is repeated in the title and in the first and last lines. I also found out that I had forgotten much of the other Milosz poem I had previously memorized, On Angels, so I will have to brush up on it as well as learn my new poem for the month. Since I have to do both, I've selected a short poem for November's memorization too: Donald Hall's White Apples.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Memorizing Poems

Do you memorize poetry?

I've been meaning to memorize 100 poems for a few years now...I read somewhere how important it was to learn the rhythm of poems by memorizing them, by carrying them around with you. I read that 100 poems was a worthy goal. It does sound like good training for a poet-wanna-be, but so far I've only memorized two. Which I am ashamed to admit. I think I have heretofore resisted because I grew up in a home where I was forced to memorize scriptures. My father even laminated certain verses and hung them in the shower so we could study while soaping up. And so I have been a bit resistant to memorization, which I am now releasing. I will now embrace memorizing text that I myself want to memorize.

Furthermore, since committing to read Moby Dick on this blog got me to do it within a month, I am committing here and now on this very same blog to memorizing 100 poems. But not in a month, not even in a year. It's going to be a long-term project, but I can (and will) commit to memorizing one per month at a minimum until I get to 100. Here it is in black and white. On my blog. And you may call me on it. Anytime.

So how about you? Do you memorize poems, and if so why? And do you have any recommendations for which poems I should memorize?

The two that I have so far are On Angels by Czeslaw Milosz (which I don't recommend for memorization because there is not much in the way of rhyme or meter to help) and Robert Frost's Fire and Ice (which I have to admit I memorized without even trying in junior high school, and I shared a bedroom with a sister six years younger than myself, and I forced her to memorize it too...I would not let her sleep at night until she said it...don't ask me why, I don't know...but in college she was asked to write a paper on this very poem and she wrote it about her wacky sister making her memorize it so my efforts didn't go to waste).

Here's an article from Jim Holt in the New York Times Book Review about his commitment to memorizing poems (he was at about 100 when this article was written 2 1/2 years ago). His tip is: "the key to memorizing a poem painlessly is to do it incrementally, in tiny bits. I knock a couple of new lines into my head each morning before breakfast..." His reasoning for this practice is: "It’s a physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one. You can get something like it by reading the poem out loud off the page, but the sensation is far more powerful when the words come from within....And it’s a cheap pleasure." And he quotes Robert Pinsky as saying, "I wonder if anyone who has memorized a lot of poetry . . . can fail to write coherent sentences and paragraphs."

And here's a recent article in Slate by Robert Pinsky about how he misremembered a Yeat's poem, and what he learned about creative writing from trying to fill in the blank himself until he could get to a bookstore to find (and be stunned by) the actual word he had forgotten. It was this article that got me thinking about memorization today...

I'd love to hear from you blog-readers about poems you have memorized, and what you think about memorization in general.

And, I will post in a day or two which poem I am starting on next. To keep me accountable. Here I go....

Oh, and if anybody wants to join me and make a memorization commitment (but I'm not pushing...wouldn't want to push, having been on the receiving end), that would be great. Go ahead and post it in the comments section, if you are so inclined.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Trailing a Whale

Here's the trailer for Matt Kish's new book from Tin House, Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page.

I know I keep mentioning this project, but I'm crazy about it. Enjoy the trailer. (Have I mentioned yet that Kish used all sorts of odd household items in his artwork, including nail polish? How can you not love that?)