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Friday, November 30, 2012

Thinking Sky (Apparently)

I keep a file of writing I want to remember, to think about--writing I admire.

I've been doing this for 20 years, so there are actually many files, ordered chronologically by the time of my discovery of the writing. I started a new file last week, and there are fewer than two pages in it thus far, but already there are three references to sky. Which are:

“You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.”
Pema Chödrön


No Sky

Martha Ronk

after Robert Adams’s California: Views

No sky a gray backdrop merely and absence
and below: the scraggle of dusty fronds, the scrub oak and scrub jay
whose abrasive noises sharpen in response.

Shadows proliferate in deep furrows no sky above
merely a scrim registering conical thrusts, a heightened flurry &
outlines of branches, the dead ones slowly petering out.

magnificent ruin the cut through the field blasted chaparral

As I understand my job, it is, while suggesting order, to make things appear as much as possible to be the way they are in normal vision.

An unvoiced series of sentences, without articulation,
with gray shapes, formulating a syntax loosening and then tightening from edge to edge.

The frame sets a border down from which a thin straggle hangs at random &
like purposeful intrusion, and so unlike

and the interstate (in the title) missing from the photograph itself
merely a dry riverbed, the density of shadows trapped in the confusion
of bush and bush-like tree

except from higher up than the rest, its thin trunk arched against
no sky

colorless, less often remarked upon, appositely emotionless these days,
a relic, like the fan palm living at the edges of water.

Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch, famously put it this way: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the moon in the sky, and words to a finger. The finger can point to the moon, but it can never be the moon. To see the moon, you have to look beyond the finger.”  (from an interview with Chase Twichell at Chapter 16)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Celebrate Fall Foliage

photo by Michael Jastremski at OpenPhoto

The Atlantic's blog is featuring Jamie Scott's time-lapse photgraphy of the changing colors of leaves in NY's Central Park this autumn.

Today I also happened to listen to recent episode in the podcast Stuff You Should Know about how leaves change color. It turns out the most vivid reds come when the tree is in dire circumstances that require it to reach deep down for the last bits of dried stored sugar, the stuff that's hardest to get at, that's the least accessible. That's when you get brilliance. Sound familiar, writers?

The last two years the colored foliage has been sparse here in Japan. The mountains we live on have remained almost entirely green all year round. I was afraid this might be due to global warming, and that my children might grow up not knowing the beauty of fall foliage. This year, however, the leaves are lavish in their colors. I go out almost every day just to look at them. Yellows, golds, oranges and some of the reddest reds I've ever seen.

This year I went to the chrysanthemum show at a local traditional garden quite a few times. I've never been a big fan of the huge chrysanthemums that you typically see, but it turns out there are all kinds, even some that resemble fireworks. And at the same time the Japanese maples were turning that unbelievable scarlet.
Japanese spider chrysanthemum. Photo from

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Svoboda's Green Girls

Remarkable poem, "Green Girls" by Terese Svoboda, over at Plume. Plume has a lot of good poetry in general, in case you don't know about it yet.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Praise for Poet Marilyn Donnelly

I've been listening to the archives of the now-defunct radio show Prosody, hosted by Jan Beatty, and I'm glad I did because I have discovered the inimitable, clever voice of Marilyn Donnelly (scroll down to the show on 6/7/11, or look it up in iTunes). A Pittsburgh citizen, Donnelly mixes word play with an insightfully cutting eye on culture. Her first full-length book Coda  is available from Autumn House Press (2010). Unfortunately, due to poor health, it is not Marilyn Donnelly herself who is interviewed and who reads her poems, but her editor Ann Burnham.

Here are a few of her shorter pieces (I transcribed them from the podcast, and may have made errors in word choice and certainly in linebreaks, for which I apologize in advance):

Human Inflation

Many C-E-Os come to a juncture
where the E-G-Os need accupuncture.

Reflection on Fame

I used to fear anonymity.
Like Willie Loman everyone deserves recognition.
I saw Joan Crawford one time--it was enough.
She wore a white turban of slithery jersey,
steadied with a raucous ransom from the five and dime
and a dress with shoulder pads as wide as a wide receiver's.
That sight made me a believer in simplicity, anonymity.
It made me shun rhinestones.
Now I wish to be small, like the wren.
Believe me, Emily Dickinson had the right idea,
settled at home in her private New England bones.

Valentine for Richard Wilbur

Ah Dicky dear,
No one has your way with meter and rhyme
So won't you come up and show me
your sestina sometime.

Thoughts After Reading The Scarlet Letter

Had only Hester known
About testosterone.


He who took the steps by two
Now pauses on each tread.
And I who love him so
Am filled with dread.

Not all the poems are humorous (obviously). Listen to the podcast and enjoy the longer, more serious pieces as well; you might even be inspired to order the book.

Poems as Problems

I tend to use problem-solving as a metaphor for life. It happens without any conscious decision-making on my part. For example, when I turn the three-sided faucet valve to shut off the hose, I can't help wondering which placement of my fingers on the three sides would turn the faucet off most quickly (I mean which two sides should I grasp this turn, and the next, and the next), with least energy expenditure. I have my own way of drying dishes which I am convinced saves time by about 10%. All these thoughts come into my head unbidden; problem-solving is simply the paradigm from within which I see the world (and within is, I think, the operative word here).

Recently I read a quote by Pema Chodron, the Buddhist priest, about how not everything is a problem to be solved; some things simply were. Immediately I knew this was something I needed to think about, almost a problem for me to solve--how to stop seeing everything in terms of problems. But first I wondered if it really was such a problem that I see things in terms of problems. (And the logical inconsistencies in this argument are so much fun to think about! If it is a problem that I think in terms of problems, then it's a problem that I'm thinking about it as a problem, ad infinitum. And if it's not a problem, if it simply is, then I have to (get to) leave in place my problem-solving paradigm because it's not a problem! This is what I mean about within being the operative word.)

I also use problem-solving as a metaphor, or perhaps a paradigm, for writing poems. I am always thinking of finding the right form or the best word or a breakthrough effect as a problem for me to solve. I had consciously thought that this way of seeing my writing was helpful--it encourages creative solutions. But now I wonder if by setting out the parameters of what I'm going to solve means that I circumvent the process which would allow me to make those poetic leaps I admire in other poets. Or maybe I can do both--solve what I think I'm solving while my unconscious makes those leaps.

So that's what I've been thinking about.

And what I'd like to know from you, if you care to comment, is whether you have an overarching metaphor or paradigm for looking at life, and/or your writing process.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

JWC 2012: My Impressions

So I've been threatening for weeks to tell you about the Japan Writers Conference 2012 and here it goes. I was able to attend for the full two days this year, so I'm going to just tell you about the presentations in which I learned something specific.

I went to Australian poet David Gilbey's poetry editing workshop. Since I left Florida over 8 years ago, I haven't been part of a workshopping group, so it was instructive and surprising to listen to feedback on my work. However, what I really learned in this presentation was how to be a better reader. David was generous with the kinds of questions he asked the poets, never assuming that something was done without intending effect, but rather asking for clarification of the intention whenever something "interesting" was done. Furthermore, many of the poets were non-native English speakers writing in English, so when I saw syntactical or grammatical errors, I assumed it was due to that, but David and another participant were always quick to assume that the poet was doing something interesting (which often wasn't the case, but why not make this generous assumption as well as notice if there was a happy accident in play). I'm also quick to find logical inconsistencies in poems, and another participant pointed out that the inconsistency might be saying something about the voice of the poem, rather than the poet, which is something I'm ashamed to say I hadn't considered. So basically, I learned that I need to be a more generous and flexible reader.

As I mentioned previously, I attended two haiku workshops, because I may be doing a class on Japanese poetic forms next year. The first class was on the history of haiku in English, by Philip Rowland, who is one of the editors of a forthcoming haiku anthology Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years (Norton). He covered the first known haiku in English by George Ashton in 1877, which followed the single line that is the traditional Japanese form, then he went through the imagists', including Amy Lowell's, fascination with haiku, the form's influence on the Beat poets, up to present day English haiku. I particularly like this haiku shared by Rowland:

     Paul Reps (1959)

The second class was a craft class by Nagoya-based poet and friend Leah Ann Sullivan, in which parameters of haiku in English were discussed, and we had a chance to try our hand at reframing a traditional seasonal (autumn) Japanese haiku with our own imagery. Leah does interesting collaborative work with musicians, pairing their improvisations with her seasonal haiku, and we got to experience that during her workshop. She also does a haiku gingko walk in Nagoya, during which people walk around a course and read haiku (aloud, not printed, I believe) about the season. Leah has a very inclusive original way of working with artists from all genres which I admire.

I also went to Kiyoko Ogawa's presentation on jisei, which are Japanese "swan song" poems, or poems composed before death to be left to family and friends. These can be done at any point in life, and many can be written throughout a single lifetime, but they do tend to be written during old age or times of peril. The form is generally short, 3 to 5 lines or so, and the themes include comforting the bereaved, recalling good times, lamenting on the ephermerality of life, expressing anxiety and/or regret, seeking comfort, musings over acceptance or destiny, longing for salvation, and expressing readiness to die. Here are few translations offered by Ogawa:

Life was something like
the moonlight
barely reflecting
on the water
I scooped in my palms.
            Ki no Tsurayuki (c868-945)

Blossoms shall be blossoms,
people people,
only when they come to know
the right time to fall.
             Hosokawa Gratia  (1563-1600) (This is a women traitor to to the family in power. She later became Christian, and as she was preventd from commiting suicide by her beliefs, she had her servant do the deed.)

Like pleasure
I'm trying to familiar with
what is stealthily coming next to me
in darkness.
              Nakajo Fumiko

We all attempted our own jisei, which was an interesting exercise. I like the one I came up with but it was really addressed to myself, so someday I'd like to write some more with my children in mind.

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa's presentation on ecopoetry was an eye opener for me. I had thought that ecopoetry dealt only with ecological themes, but Jane argued that the category includes any poem discussing human relationships with nature and/or animals, as well as discussions on attitudes of assumed stewardship of humans over nature. Jane further went on to say that any kind of recycling of language or imagery (sampling) is also ecopoetry. Using an abundance of examples from over a thousand years ago till today, Jane showed us that while the term ecopoetry is new, the writing of ecopoems is not. I even realized that I write ecopoetry, and hadn't known it.

Ann Tashi Slater gave a talk on flash fiction, and I asked her what she thought the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry was. This is a question that I've been wondering about for some time, and I had heard on a podcast that flash fiction has a plot, and a discernable beginning, middle and ending, but the flash fiction I've read doesn't necessarily have those, and can be quite indiscernible from prose poetry much of the time. Ann said that she thought both forms were language-driven rather than plot-driven (I hope I'm not misrepresenting her opinion!) and that the difference was in many cases simply what you classified a piece in order to meet the demands of the marketplace you were attempting to place it in. That is, many pieces can be called flash fiction when submitting to the fiction market, and prose poetry when submitting to the poetry market. This seemed to be consistent with what I've observed, but I'd LOVE to have anyone else's opinion on the matter as well. So feel free to comment (on this point as well as any other).

Finally, I went to James Crocker's presentation on the new JALT (Japan Association of Language Teachers) journal, The Font, which will be a literary journal with the theme of language acquisition and teaching. This is a new venue for writers in Japan and out, and those in the teaching (particularly TESOL and TEFL) profession and outside of it as well. I was also surprised to find out that Crocker is married to a colleague of mine!

I went to a few other presentations, but that's enough for today!

Friday, November 23, 2012

What I've Been Reading

Syzygy, Beauty: An Essay

While my computer was down, I did some reading (one of the positive points of being unplugged for a week or so). Here's what I read and what I thought about:

First I read T. Fleischmann's Syzygy, Beauty, which is billed as an essay, but seemed more like prose poems to me (more on that when I discuss something I heard at the Japan Writers Conference). The language use was effective, and the gender-bending worked very well. At the end of the book, I was still only 85% convinced I understood the gender of the voice of the pieces, and since gender identity is a constant discussion, this worked very well, giving me the feeling of fluidity and confusion about gender that the voice had. It's a good read. I read it twice in fact.
The Game of Boxes: Poems

Next I read Catherine Barnett's The Game of Boxes (winner of the 2012 James Laughlin Award sponsored by the Academy of American Poets). I had really been looking forward to this book, since I loved her debut volume, Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced. This first book was an amazing piece of elegaic poetry in which the voice is the sister of a woman whose two prepubescent daughters have been lost in a plane crash over the waters. It handles the grief of the mother and the aunt (the voice) so fully without once lapsing into sentimentality, or without recognizing when it is reporting sentimentality, that it is an unbelievable piece of work. This new books, with its focus on (single) motherhood in the first section, fails to skirt the edges of sentimentality without being sucked in. And the second section, an erotic series, is jarring compared to the first, but worth being there to insist on the sensual life of women who are mothers. However, it is a bit sing-songy in places (which is the opposite of erotic). Finally the third section attempts to synthesize the two themes. It's good, pleasant poetry, but it isn't great poetry like the first book was (which was clearly a tough act to follow). I'll hang in there for Barnett's next book and see how that goes.

In a Landscape of Having to RepeatFinally, I also started Martha Ronk's In a Landscape of Having to Repeat. I've actually read this once and am reading it for the second time now, enjoying my need to repeat it as a response to the theme of repetition, though anyone who knows me at all well will already realize my obsession with repetition. Ronk writes in a way that I wish I could, making loose connections and suggestions and trusting the reader to keep up and fill in the blanks. I wish I could do this, and so I am studying as well as reading this text. The repetition in the book is useful and evocative, and all of Ronk's work comes highly recommended by me and by people who know much better than I do. (Don't mind that I've made this cover smaller than the previous two books--having trouble formatting in Blogger right now. Although I have to admit to being seduced by Barnett's geometric cover--always susceptible to geometry, I am, and Barnett has spheres in her first book title and boxes in her second, so I was hoping....)

All three are worth a read, though if I had to rank them, I'd go with Ronk first, then Fleischmann, and then Barnett.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tshirt Haiku

So I got my computer back from the shop yesterday and one of the first things I found was an email from my sister, telling me about a tshirt worn by one of her students (my sister is a math teacher, by the way--it runs in the family). Here's the tshirt :

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don't make sense

I attended two workshops on haiku at the Japan Writers Conference 2012 (since I may be teaching a class on Japanese poetic forms next spring), and I have been unable to report on those presentations as well as the others I enjoyed that weekend. So look for a conference update coming soon, as soon as I get everything reinstalled on my computer and feel back to normal.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Computer Down

Sorry for the prolonged silence. My computer is in the shop. I am using my husband`s Japanese keyboard and struggling mightily with it. Hence I am doing only the necessary things. Who knew blogging wasn`t necessary?!

A couple of weeks ago I went off Facebook, and it was a good thing for me (though temporary, I`m sure...lots of good information on FB). Since my computer broke last Tuesday I`ve hardly been online at all, and it is amazing how calm I am feeling. Whether that`s coincidence or cause and effect I can`t say, but it`s food for thought.

Still, I`m hoping to have my computer back in the next few days, so I should be up and running later this week. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Guidelines for Rejection

This is beautiful. Joyland: A Hub for Short Fiction not only has submission guidelines; it also has rejection guidelines, which includes sections on "Should I be angry?" (answer: yes), and "How angry should I be?" (answer: it depends). I talso covers "What Should I Do Now?"

It's a very refreshing read. Thanks to The Review Review for tweeting this link.

Also, the Los Angeles Times has an article on Jack Gilbert. Sobering.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Two More Poetry Podcasts

I've found two nearly inexhaustible podcast series in which poets are interviewed. The first series is finished now, but the archives, years and years of interviews, are available on iTunes. Both podcasts are also available at their own websites.

First is WYEP Radio's show Prosody, hosted by poet Jan Beatty and a few others.

Second is the Scottish Poetry Library Pocast, hosted largely by Ryan Van Winkle.

I've been enjoying both series during my long hours of walking.

This weekend I'm off to the Japan Writers Conference. I hope to see some of you there. I'll let you all know my impressions of it.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Story in a Suitcase

I follow the tweets of author Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), who also happens to be the daughter of poet Floyd Skloot. Today she linked to an article from Collectors Weekly blog, about the suitcases left behind when residents of insane asylums die.

Writer Hunter Oatman-Stanford interviewed photographer Jon Crispin, who documented and curated an exhibition based on the haunting contents of these suitcases.

There are stories in every item, not just the ones in the article, but in every item surrounding you now. This plastic bluebird my husband put in my Christmas stocking the first year of our marriage, the first time in his life he had any need to get or give a stocking, and he wasn't sure what was supposed to be in a stocking. This fossil of a fish I bought at the Orange County Fair and my son coveted and even though I usually give my kids what they want, I just couldn't hand this over, and ended up getting him one of his own. This antique Japanese sword hilt my friend's father gave me right out of his private collection because I was still friends with his daughter despite her scandalous (to him and to her friends) divorce. This stone carving my husband and I bought in Burma, a carving I didn't really like then and tried to talk my husband out of purchasing, but that I have since moved from his bookshelf to my desk and my husband hasn't said a word about my appropriation. This ammonite that belonged to my son and I coveted and he gave me, even though I wouldn't give him the fossil fish. This chunky silver clock I love but that goes through batteries so fast that I just stopped replacing them, and it's been 1:01 and 21 seconds for years.

Every item a story, a lot of stories. Spooky, yes. Comforting, maybe. And which of these would I take with me if I was on my way to a mental institution? And what would you carry?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Buried in a Book(case)

I heard a podcast the other day about a bookcase that could be made into a coffin. I had to look this up, and found that the classic design is by William Warren. If you want to make it yourself, there are design plans available all over the internet on sites like Bookalicious and E-Verse Radio. Publisher's Weekly also shows alternative designs by woodworker Chuck Lakin.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Inappropriate in Japan

Today was the elementary school concert at my sons' school. Every year something amusing goes on, something which amuses pretty much only me and the few other "western" parents. This year it was the fourth graders' instrumental rendition of "The Tequila Song" (originally by the Champs, revitalized by Pee Wee Herman). There's nothing like a bunch of (non-English-speaking) ten-year-olds screaming "Tequira!" in their school auditorium and their proud parents clapping along.

(Oh, and the arrangement featuring xylophones, recorders, and accordians really rocked it!)
And since we're talking inappropriate, here's an app that gets William Shatner's voice to read your poem.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Difference Between Simile and Metaphor

"Similes make you think. Metaphors let you feel things."

That's one line from the short video, "The Art of the Metaphor" by Jane Hirshfield.

It's from TedEd, and I heard about it from Diane Lockward's montly newsletter, which I've touted many times in posts before. If you need to know how to sign up for it, put her name in my search bar, or leave a comment and I'll find the newsletter link for you.

Back to the video: it's is a wonderful teaching tool for the uninitiated, and a sweet reminder for the rest of us about the power of simile and metaphor.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

JWC 2012 Schedule+

The Japan Writers Conference 2012 is coming soon, on November 13th and 14th in Kyoto.

The website has been updated with the program timetable, a summary of presentation topics and presenter bios, and information about the site at Doshisha Women's University.

I'll be there on Saturday for sure, for David Gilbey's workshop among other presentations, and maybe again on Sunday, depending on family stuff.

Hope to see some of you there!

Podcasts Galore

I recently discovered that has compiled a list of podcasts and videocasts about writing, writers, and journals. There are enough programs to keep me company on my walks for years! Enjoy.