Poetry was my first genre. The pleasures of metaphor, compression of expression, and the controlled line appealed to me in ways that prose did not, and when I first began writing—and then publishing—I never thought I would write anything but poetry. Of course, critical essays and book reviews were part of my work, but those always felt as though they came from a different quadrant of my brain. Poetry was my genre.
My first poems were also very personal, and my early books, taken together, are almost a memoir in verse. Those poems felt urgent, needing to be written before I could do anything else creative. Maybe it was therapy; maybe it was self-discovery; maybe I was using my own life as a way of understanding what cultural imperatives do to an individual personality. Maybe all of the above. I don’t know, but what I do know is that I was also feeling my way through my own narrative, in tight, often quite short, pieces.
Writing about the self has its limits, though. By the time I was writing my most recent book of poems, The Gold Thread, I was writing about historical people and situations, using characters and situations from my scholarly work in Early Modern British literature. The shift happened during a trip to Wales one summer. I had a grant to investigate the recipe manuscripts left by seventeenth and eighteenth-century women in the National Library at Aberystwyth, and my intention was to get as much information, for my teaching, about domestic life from that period as possible. And I learned an enormous amount—but what came of my time in Wales was not an academic book but a series of poems about those women, some largely imagined and some based almost entirely on details that they’d recorded. That experience changed my poems. Continue reading
I am a believer in community, and I am a believer in magic. Both of these beliefs have come true through The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project.
In 2006 I founded Mezzo Cammin, www.mezzocammin.com, the online formalist journal by women, after participating in a 2005 seminar on forgotten women poets at the West Chester University Poetry Conference. The title Mezzo Cammin, which means “middle path,” seemed fitting, coming by way of Dante, then Longfellow, then Judith Moffett, who allowed us to publish her poem “Mezzo Cammin” in the first issue. Women poets were well on their way on the journey. As Moffett emphasizes, “The grass is green here too.” Continue reading
I’m writing this post—and a few other things—on my first summer day of liberation from teaching and administration, and it feels wonderful! Of course, by the time this post appears (in a month), the summer will feel half over—it will indeed be half over, as classes start mid-August. But for the moment, I’m reminded that writing is fun, especially when it’s not squeezed into the hour here or there available during the school year. And that I’m lucky to be able to write poems and prose, and have someone read what I write.
“Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo,” said humorist Don Marquis, more famous for his cockroach and alley cat pair, Archy and Mehitabel. But I tell my students what I tell myself, write because you love it, because it’s what you do. Continue reading
A dozen years ago, I lived in a high-rise that overlooked the gaping hole where the World Trade Center had, only the year before, stood. It sometimes occurred to me that if the towers were still there, I wouldn’t have so much light, but I loved the light anyway.
It was a company apartment, which is to say: my husband’s boss and his wife and their toddler watched as people held hands and jumped from the burning buildings, and kept watching, until finally they realized they should grab the gun and the jewelry and all their money and climb down thirty-nine flights of stairs to get the HELL out of Manhattan. They picked me up in Brooklyn, and we headed to the Hamptons where, courtesy of Y2K, they had prepared so well for the end of the world that we had enough batteries and canned beans to last us until the reckoning.
Recently, I had occasion to attend a poetry reading at a local charter school. The children were exuberant, eager to read their new poems to the audience—so new, in fact, that some of the poems were still being composed as the kids walked up to the stage. There were twelve readers, cute and endearing as the day is long. Their poems were sweet and silly and tender and sad. Strikingly, though, while they were engaged in the process of composing poems, it became apparent that they had not actually read any poetry at all. This is not meant to be disparaging, simply factual; it was confirmed by the children themselves in an after-reading conversation—many of them had read four or five poems, if that, in their schooling career, just as many had only read a handful of haiku (remember we had to that one day in fifth grade? one remarked to another as we chatted). They had been offered time and space and encouragement to compose, a rare and important treat. But their school experience didn’t lend itself to developing an ear for the rhythms of poetry, or an eye for how it looks on the page, or a sense of what a poem can do to a reader. A lot of “outbreath” without “inbreath.” This is a good school, mind you. Parents have been known to lie, cheat, and steal to outgame the admission lottery. Continue reading
An admission: My instincts are all Rodney King: Can’t we all get along? I’m conflict averse, accommodating, arguably milquetoast. That’s partly my nature and partly the result of living in a very small town where political divisions are radical and getting-along is crucial. So, I spent most of my adult life trying to see the other side, being equivocal, siding with reasonableness. My essay “Caucus” (North American Review 294:3-4, May-August 2009, ) told the story of how attending our small town Democratic caucuses in the thick of the Bush era changed me.
“After the caucus, I began to ally myself more seriously and more strictly with liberal Democrats. I understood the irony, of course, that it had been precisely that kind of behavior that had sent me reeling. The Us-ness of flag waving conservatives. The Us-ness of anti-government types. But it didn’t matter. I’d had it. I wanted to be Us. Without apologies.” Continue reading
My mom was in her hospital bed, smiling with rare warmth. The whiteness of the room was intense under the fluorescent lights. Maybe she was glad because I was the only one in our family to go to see her.
Without me saying anything, she said, “Go ahead, be happy.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“I want you to just be happy.”
Seeing my puzzled expression, she finally said, “You can write poetry.” Continue reading
When I wrote “Living at Tree Line” some ten years ago, I had never before written a braided essay. In fact, I didn’t even know the form had a name, and what’s more, I didn’t consider myself a writer of creative nonfiction. At the time, I was working on my MFA in fiction, and as part of the requirement for the degree, I enrolled in a class in another genre, creative nonfiction. It was in that class, taught by Alan Cheuse, that I read Annie Dillard’s “An Expedition to the Pole,” an intricately constructed piece that brings together the history of Arctic exploration with the author’s own personal experiences attending church and exploring her faith. This was the first braided essay I encountered, and I was enthralled by its possibilities.
After reading Dillard’s essay, I used it as a model to write my own braided essay—though I still didn’t know the name for it. The resulting piece, “Living at Tree Line,” was about bristlecone pine trees and my experiences working at a cemetery (the job I held while working on my MFA). I found the form to be freeing and innovative; I was especially taken with how placing two unlike things side by side causes each to cast a light on the other, illuminating previously unseen facets of both. Continue reading
How can a paper napkin turn into a poem?
Easy. But hard. Link it with a loved person and fire. Flame is the link in my poem “To a Great-Grandmother Who Loves Fire.” Human beings have long been fascinated and ignited by it. Think of fire warming the hearth, or cut-down trees burning into smoke and flying up a stone chimney into cloud. The lady in my poem had the lively curiosity of a femal Prometheus, the good blood of a lively red-seeded pomegranate, and a spirit that struck a match in the dark.
The poem itself began this way: On a cloudy day my husband and I stopped at a turnpike resturant on the road to a family farewell for a woman who had ignited us all the one time or another. Feeling loss, I fingered the cafe’s cheap paper napkin and began jotting down words and phrases with a ball point pen, hardly knowing what I wrote. I came back to that paper for years, until it became the poem it is.
Who was she? Her name was Erma Benedict, called “BeeBee” by the younger generation. She was an artist. She graduated from Syracuse University on a rare scholarship – as one of the few women to study there before 1900. She excelled as a water colorist and an oil painter of a small town and rural landscapes. Her handmade note cards, favorites for birthday letters, burst into columbine, violets and coral bells, signed with a small, elegant double-B. Continue reading
It took me a week to write “Village of Adams”. It started as a journal exercise, something I never intended to be read by anyone. I remember wanting to just write down everything I wanted to about the town I grew up in. I started with the bats flying around our house. How one got stuck in my bedroom one night. In the pitch black darkness I could hear it fly around my room landing on my window sill.
I wanted to write about Jason Craft. To me, Jason was the kid I grew up with that fully encapsulated Adams. Yes, he is a real person and one that you can find at the local pizza shop any day of the week. Continue reading
This week I spent some time at Randolph College, a private liberal arts institution in the hills of Lynchburg, Virginia. As a visiting writer, I gave a reading and waxed poetic with environmental studies and creative writing students. And I participated in an environmental writing class (a course I sure wish my college offered way back when) comprised of a mix of majors and taught by Laura-Gray Street.
The students in the class attended my reading the evening before, and one student kicked off the classroom Q&A by asking me about inspiration. He referenced my poem “Friday Afternoon,” which originally appeared in North American Review in 2009 and is a personal favorite. It is dedicated to my older daughter, who was ten at the time, and begins: Continue reading