Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #44

In which Your Humble Blogger spends more time on the train, this time focusing her attention out the window:


Everything built on the backs of years
Can be undone in a few days, if only
The other guy would get back from the yard
With more of that yellow caution tape.
But no one else is coming right now
Except the woman in the middle of the street
Who's doing what she normally does around noon,
Which is to walk past these hollow buildings,
With bricks that don't follow their frames
And windows that hold shut, like eyes
Against bad dreams, while in front of her,
A child sleeps in the stroller she's pushing.

* * *

Seen from the Metra train window as we sped alongside the Dan Ryan. It almost looked like the woman and the construction worker idling outside the abandoned buildings were headed for a standoff, the way she held herself as she approached the spot where he stood.

This is one of a series of narrative poems that occupies this chunk of my notebook. I think, at this point last year, I was itching to get back into story writing, but I couldn't figure out how to parlay what I saw into fiction. I wish I had done more with this image, though; there's something to it that doesn't quite get developed in this poem, although it might still have potential.

Monday, June 27, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #43

In which Your Humble Blogger continues singing her love for actual, tangible letters, even if they don't arrive through the USPS:

"The Letter"

Out with the stars, you'll find a letter
That I sent you just after we met.
It didn't get lost. But to tell you
Everything I had to say about
The way your echoes resonated
In me – how could I write that letter
And then ask the wind here to lift it?
If you look up, you'll see Jupiter
Approaching the moon, which is smiling
While it dreams of dreams. Their cheeks will soon
Touch. That's where the letter should be now.
The stars and I, we hope you're awake.

* * *

Not the most logical poem, just more dreamy fun with syllables. I initially skipped this and jumped to the Canada poems before I should have. Oops! It wasn't intentional; the pages just stuck together when I was flipping through the notebook to see what I had to post, and I missed this one on my earlier pass.

I really do love tangible media. ("What?" I hear you gasp. "I never would have guessed!" I know, I know! Contain your shock!) Not that I'm against working digitally at all; if I were, I wouldn't have a paying job right now! And there are definite perks that come with the electronic age. Being able to pay your bills quickly or send a message to a friend as soon as you think of it? Pretty nice. If you're like me and you struggle for hours trying to narrow down the field when it comes to selecting books to bring on a trip, I can see how an e-reader is handy.

But there's a warmth that comes with art and communication produced in tangible form that I don't think I'll ever get over, or ever want to. And that should make the next project I have in mind interesting. Mwahahaha.


Friday, June 24, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #42

In which Your Humble Blogger tries not to mess this post up:


Out for a walk in October,
I saw leaves parceled into the sky.
Gold as well as brown, every color delivered.
I wished I had sent more letters to friends.

Out for a walk in October,
I thought about old friends.
They had long ago settled their winds on either coast.
And suddenly, I began to miss the leaves.

* * *

My notebook reminds me that I was pondering alternate versions of the last line. The first version I wrote down was, "And I had already begun to miss the leaves."

This was one of the few poems that I didn't type up and save to my flash drive as a backup. Why? Because it was actually written for somebody else. Once I copied it down for the intended recipient (having hemmed and hawed over the last line, heh), it felt like I had done all I needed to do with it. I had made something that I hoped would let a friend know that I missed her, and if something happened to my notebook, that was alright; I would have already sent the poem off to do what it was intended to do.

[Of course, at that time, I had no idea that I would be doing this blogging project! However, the poem's recipient has very graciously given me permission to share it, even though she certainly didn't have to. :)]

I think that art is, to some degree, necessarily self-indulgent; someone sees the world a certain way inside of his or her own head and feels the need to share it. However, just because a piece has its beginning within one person doesn't mean that it's confined to a selfish vein. Art draws on symbols and words and sounds that, for whatever reason, trigger similar emotions across many people. Art can be used to join us socially, to make us laugh or make us have those "A-ha!" moments. And if we're lucky, art can also be used on a smaller scale, to carve out an image from the world and present it as a thank-you to someone who's inspired us that way.

(For Meghann, 2010-2011)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #41

In which Your Humble Blogger puts aside her wariness of sequels long enough to write a follow-up to the last poem:

"The Canada of My Reality"

Not long after I wrote the other poem,
I received a phone call from a strange number.
My phone informed me of the call's origin.
Nova Scotia.
Nova Scotia!
Briny grey seashore of my dreams,
The one I've loved past the saltwater
Frozen in your beard!
Exactly where, as a kid, I wanted to live.
Oh! My younger self
Had read my poem and liked it, then.
Canada thought I was worth talking to!
So I began to listen to the voice mail
(I never answer my phone –
I'm American and I don't have to),
And I presumed from the voice's friendliness
As well as the caller ID info
That the voice was indeed a Canadian's.
Then the voice told me about
All of the irresponsible behavior
Of Political Candidate A,
Who was my incumbent state representative,
And what Candidate B would do differently.
But why were they calling from Nova Scotia?
Then I remembered the call a few days before
Made on behalf of Political Candidate A
From an area code in California.
Nice new trick, guys.

Weeks before this, I had read an article
About a phenomenon scientists are observing:
This year, the aurora borealis
Is dimmer than in other years recent.
It seems to be a cyclical occurrence.
If the scientists want an outside explanation
For what passes with the Northern Lights, though,
I hope they ask me.
I think I've got it figured out.
It's because we, down here,
And in an election year no less,
Are touching them.

* * *

Didn't 2010 seem to be a particularly nasty election year here in the U.S.? Such anger, such hostility, such... snippiness. I know that Canada recently had its own election drama. Still, I couldn't help feeling, as November approached, that we were really wallowing in the muck.

This poem is inspired by true stories. I really did get calls on my cell phone on behalf of local political candidates from Nova Scotia and California. Did anyone else get those last year? It was a smart trick -- an out-of-state area code did get me curious enough to listen to the automated message from each number. (It also irked me enough afterward to think twice about voting for certain candidates.) Additionally, the Northern Lights really were in the dim part of their cycle.

I should probably conclude this post with an admission: I've never actually been to Nova Scotia. I just have the same romantic image of it that I used to have of Maine. And I actually liked Maine once I finally got there two years ago. Perhaps, in time, Nova Scotia and I shall also meet face-to-face.... *swoon*

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #40

In which Your Humble Blogger writes a love letter to her youthful idealism, the personification of which has seems to have taken up residence across the border:

“The Canada of My Dreams”

See, in the distance, that perfect arc
That's binding the shape of the heavens?
That's not the horizon. That, my friends,
Is Canada, bridge of ice and light
And tempered growth, meticulous bridge.
Up north there, even the blacktop's snow white,
And after walking it for a while,
A potential expat becomes blessed
With Canadians, darling bundles
Of flannel and warmth who present her
With hot chocolate and evidence of
Overwhelming literacy. There,
Everything beams, and though the d├ęcor
Depends largely on mounted deer parts,
Everyone knows that those were procured
Through conservation measures; the effect
Is responsibly charming. Often,
For those reasons, I've gazed at the span
That is Canada, and on lucky days,
I've even see my younger self there.
Normally, she sends me angry notes
Through the mirror, while I'm up weighing
The circles under my eyes or dropping
My bulk onto the scale. Or washing
My hands after doing nothing with them.
When I see her in Canada, though,
That young me seems happy, probably
Because she's going to the doctor's,
And in Canada, health care is fun.
Sometimes, however, she regards me
With such sadness that I almost feel
Sorry for the snow that finds her cheek.
It's all I can do to tell her
Not to worry, because she forever
Has Canada, and its glittering
Promise, and because of that, she will
Never be the one who's cold.

* * *

Ah, my fellow doe-eyed liberals here in the U.S. Raise your hands if, at some point in your youth (or, hell, even at some point recently, probably before the hockey riots), you found yourself thinking, "Screw it, I'm sick of how they do things here, and I'm gonna move to Canada, where they do things right!" ;p

And to everybody reading this: Raise your hands if you think about the way you are now, compare it to the way you believe you used to be, and wonder, "Man, what happened to me?"

Stereotypes can be interesting to play with, if treated carefully and not assumed to be absolute reality. I think the best comedians can use them successfully to make us think about how we behave as members of society at large, and that usually means that they use such exaggerated forms of the stereotype that we know they don't really feel that way. (I also think the problems with stereotypes arise when someone assumes that people are going to behave like a stereotype before she even knows them, or when someone assumes that stereotypical behavior is all that an individual has to offer.) My belief is that we all engage in stereotypical behavior at some point; the question, I guess, is what we do knowing that.

The image of Canada that I think a lot of people have conjured is a little different from reality. My youthful idealism is a bit detached from my current reality. That doesn't mean that I didn't find it worthwhile to spend some time thinking about them.

What's interesting to me about this poem, looking back at it, is the way that it came about. This is one of the few poems for which I had the title before I had anything else; normally, I struggle for a title after I've already laid out the basic elements of a piece. The night before I wrote this one, though, I had had a dream about visiting Toronto, and that's where this explanation gets weird: The world of my dreams has a consistent alternate geography to it. For example, I've repeatedly visited San Diego in my dreams, and while it's the same every time -- there's an old blue house smack in the middle of the downtown area -- it looks nothing like the real San Diego. I was thinking about the fact that there's a certain Canada in my dreams, and lo, there a poem took hold.

So... does anyone else do that?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Shirking My Duties

Hi, kids! Sorry to report that there won't be a post from "My Poetry Year" today. We spent the morning without power, stress is a little high over here, and I've got a few hours' worth of work to catch up on. Rest assured that, barring any serious calamity, all will be back in order on Monday, when I intend to share a poem that is an ode to both Canada and my teenage optimism. Happy trails!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beyond My Poetry Year (or, I Failed at One Thing and Succeeded at Another)

In which Your Humble Blogger briefly discusses why she's more suited to staying inside and writing instead of, say, going outside and trying to help injured birds:

I initially thought that today's post was going to be nothing more than a quick, dirty thing that I got done early in the morning. We're in the thick of work over here, so I wanted to meet my posting obligation as minimally as possible before going on to what I had to do.

That was before my morning got taken up by me finding a beautiful cedar waxwing outside, sitting on the sidewalk with one wing askew.

After running back to the house, getting some info, and waiting about twenty minutes for it to fly away, I headed back to find the bird still there, at which point I called the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors (a name that makes me think of auto body repair specialists), who instructed me to try to get the bird into a box so that a volunteer could come get it.

Here's something I didn't know until today: Birds with an injured wing can still muster up enough flight to get into a tree, out of your reach, as you approach to pick them up. Seems I was too slow in scooping it up. I also didn't mention before that I had found the bird outside of a neighbor's house while I was on a quick walk. The tree that it flew into, then, was in someone else's yard other than mine. D'oh. So much for keeping an eye on it.

I thought that this meant the bird was in better shape than I had initially thought, but when I called the rescue group back to inform them that the bird had flown off, the response of the woman on the phone was, "Oh, that's a shame. It'll probably die that way."

Wha? Gaaaaa!

That was my morning. Not very successful. So it seems a little perverse to share the tidbit of joy that I had initially planned on posting, but here we go anyway: Remember my red notebook?

I finished it the other night. Filled it up. As you can see, it's not all poetry, but getting to the end of a 256-page notebook still made me feel good. In fact, I was pretty darn happy at the idea of finishing it. Almost as if I was soaring. Flying a little.


Aaaaaand we've come back down.

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #39

In which Your Humble Blogger almost begins her post by singing "I'm a little teacup, short and stout," but then realizes that (a) it ain't "teacup," and (B) she would rather be called "diminutive and well-built," thank you:

"The Joy of Making Dinner"

This measuring cup is fragile and small,
barely enough for a poet to call a vessel,
small, with one purpose.

This poet is damaged and small,
barely able to stir a pot for dinner,
small, with one purpose --

but so is the chipped teacup
that will touch your lips at dessert.

* * *

Devices like similes and metaphors depend on one idea or picture triggering thoughts of another. Some poets, especially if they're using similes, want the comparisons they're making to be obvious: "Attention! This is like this!" Other poets prefer to varying degrees to make the reader work to form the connection. Haiku, which has been a subject here so many times before, has a way of stating two seemingly disparate thoughts quite plainly and then letting a third line tie those thoughts together that fascinates me (if you haven't guessed by all the times I've written about haiku).

In this poem, which is decidedly not haiku, I tried to see if I could use similar sentence structure and repeated words in the first two stanzas to help make a comparison. What I was hoping with the third stanza was that its varied structure would suggest a sudden frankness in the speaker's attitude, as opposed to the shyness in the first two stanzas. Sad to say, I'm not sure that introducing the teacup worked! I would rather have found a way to tie the ending back to the measuring cup instead. Ah, well. There's another poem to come later that's similar in structure to this one but more effectively done, I think.

Side note: Most of my posts are usually typed up the morning I post them, but this one is being typed up late Sunday night. If it makes less sense than my usual posts, I'd like to use that as my excuse. ;p

Friday, June 10, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #38

In which Your Humble Blogger shares the poem she wrote to try to snap herself out of a funk:

"On Patterns That Repeat"

A leaf laughed as it caught up
To its friends at the far end
Of the sidewalk. Otherwise,
The night was quiet. Before
The leaf, the couple next door
Had turned off their golden lamps.
And I'd pondered opening
The veins that cross my forearm,
Almost as casually
As I've debated a snack.

I'm wrong. There was another
Sound to be heard that long night.

It was the high song of crickets
Seeking each other across
The retention pond hollows.

* * *

I've been dancing around the idea of posting this poem for the last couple of days (the last poem I posted was actually written after this one), and I even talked to Wes to get his opinion on posting something like this. Really, what do you do with the things you produce when you're in a self-pitying kind of way?

The reason I can post this, I suppose, is that I accept what purpose it served: It was the written equivalent of an eye roll at myself, an attempt to say, "Come on, you can get over it" a little more artfully. I don't know if it succeeds for anyone else reading it beyond me -- I don't know if anyone else chuckles at the last passage -- but it got me, if not outside of my own head, at least to a point where I could try to shape and work with what was there. And it's written in syllables again!

I don't think it was much of a secret to anyone near me at the time that I was in lousy shape during the warehouse trip. My poor editor -- I think even he noticed that I was falling apart, because he kept giving me little tasks every now and then that weren't so taxing, which was helpful, embarrassed as I was about it. During the trip, though, I looked forward to the return home assuming that I would be able to fall back into my normal routine of reading and writing with no problem.

When that didn't happen, when, after initial success, too many nights passed on which I couldn't muster a drive to work on anything or even a thought to work with, that's when the crappy feeling hit hard.

I think a lot more of us get slugged with that severe self-loathing than even all of the PSAs out there would have us believe, and I suspect it's worse among people pursuing art, because when you start to worry that your art has abandoned you -- sucks like nothing else, doesn't it? But art is a great double-edged sword: Even when its absence from your life has you feeling totally hollow, the desire for it, if you can remain focused just on what you want and keep out the fact that you don't have it quite yet, can push you past an emptiness. What I like about this poem, I guess, isn't that it's particularly good but that it reminded me that I still wanted to write. Bless art for all it can do for us.

Music has that power for a lot of people, I've noticed. My favorite song for getting out of a funk? "Caught by the River" by Doves. (I'd love to link it here, but I don't want to step on anyone's toes with copyright issues.) What's yours?

(Stupid, silly fact: Another idea that soothed me a little bit during the warehouse trip was the possibility of shaving my head. Hey, when I realized that I at least have some control over something even as small as my personal appearance, it did a lot for me. :D)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #37

In which Your Humble Blogger describes what she sees in the women's bathroom at the train station in terms of a favorite story from childhood:

"Where the Unicorns Have Gone"

The women blustering toward
The tissue-clogged sinks are busy
With petite wrinkles that frustrate
Their concealer. They see blouses
That betray their bra straps; they see
Hairs sticking up, like flags of war.
They make practical adjustments.
But the quick women don't see that
The unicorns, holy creatures,
Are here in the public restroom,
Flickering outside the pale lights
And kicking at the mop water.
Undo these pearl lassos, they plead.
But the clock soon will call the bells
Of capture, so the women leave
With a glance. The women don't see
The unicorns. The women see
Everything in the flat mirror
Except their own eyes.

* * *

You know, based on the introduction I wrote for this post, I can understand how a reader would expect a totally different kind of poem from the one that's featured here. ;p

Prior to today, I hadn't looked at this one in a really long time. I like the basic idea of it, but I think I really need to work on clarifying what's going on. The inspiration behind it was the sight of women crowding in front of the bathroom mirror at the train station on their way to work or to job interviews, wherever their professional-looking attire suggested that they were headed. Of course, my opinions and predispositions crept deep into this one; I tend to readily assume that everyone who's out in a business suit is secretly unhappy. I imagine that they're like the unicorn in The Last Unicorn, trapped in a disguise that causes their heads to become filled with all sorts of trifling thought and leads them to forget who they are. I know that's not the case. But man, some of these women I see look so unhappy.

So if I revise this poem, I would at least make it clearer in the beginning that the women are on their way to work and clearer in the middle that the unicorns are trapped inside of them. I think there must be other changes that I can make, too, but I can't exactly figure out what they are yet.

Looking at my notebook, I see evidence that this poem gave me a tough time even when I was first writing it. I don't know if you can see it in the picture below -- the notebook is just pages and pages of eraser smudges at this point, so it's all a mess -- but whatever the first three lines of the poem originally were, they got erased and are gone forever. How romantic-sounding, no?

Monday, June 6, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #36

In which Your Humble Blogger gets by with a little help from a friend:

"Riding a Bicycle"

It was autumn, and someone
had soaked our sweaters in the cold air.
Someone had put our bicycles to sleep
under a blanket of rust. It wasn't
either of us, we said. We wouldn't do that.
Except that we had. So we woke
the gears and chains from their long naps,
and we tried our feet on the pedals.
Then, not long after we began,
the trees exploded
into a sky ecstatic with sparrows
that were following the leaves
behind the good idea of being loud and happy.
Every mark on our bicycles' wheels
went around, over the blacktop we had crossed
in spring, when we had ridden for days in t-shirts.
Your breath filled my ears when we finally stopped.
But the leaves, remembering green April,
kept traveling the streets, laughing.

* * *

Kind of a meandering, unfocused poem that doesn't do a lot for me now (though, once again, I like the last couple of lines). I'm also mad that I reused the idea of approaching pedals hesitantly, though this time on a bicycle instead of at a piano. I was still feeling a little desperate and doubtful as I tried to get back into the writing habit.

This poem was born out of -- well, not quite a challenge. A friend (hi, Andy!) sent me a message one day, asking me to provide a topic or idea or object for him to use as the subject of a song. I, too, was trying to gather ideas to write about, so I told him that I would write a poem about whatever subject I assigned to him. Well, I had been going out on walks a lot since returning from the warehouse trip, and I would see people riding bicycles all the time, so... there you have it.

If nothing else, there's something to be said for the power of community when it comes to finding motivation to write. Speaking of community and socialization and all of that, I left the house again! :D I was at the Printers Row Book Fair in downtown Chicago on Sunday, where I listened to some poets read and picked up a couple of literary journals. If you were there, did ya happen to see me?

Friday, June 3, 2011

One More Thing....

I just wanted to say "thank you" to everyone who's been reading here. I recently got a few e-mails from a few of you letting me know that every now and then you pop over and read some of the stuff I put up here. The words you have to offer encourage me beyond belief. So cheers to you, and again, thanks.

Enjoy your Friday!

My Poetry Year: Entry #35

In which Your Humble Blogger shares something short and sweet as an excuse to link to another short work that's way better:


Your hair, set free
from its ponytail,
shows me what you believe in
with all of your years.

* * *

I really thought that I was going to skip over this poem when I began looking at this section of the notebook and trying to determine what to include on this blog. All it is is the basic expression of an idea that needs to be fleshed out more: A slightly older woman grows her hair long despite the conventions urging short hair that we see in play in society, and it's like a statement for her. (Of course, think of the subject of the poem as male, and that changes it a bit, doesn't it? Hmm....)

The reason I'm posting it is because I read a really short poem last night that made me smile, and I wanted to stay on topic and mention once again that brevity can be an interesting defining force. Here's the poem that I read; check out that brevity in action:

"Bladder Song"

I love the fact that the word "human" gets an almost-rhyme. Plus, yeah -- that's easily one of my favorite poem titles.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #34

In which Your Humble Blogger relates how she got back into the swing of things with her writing (it involved scaring herself and then looking for tokens of comfort):

"The Old Woman Remembers"

The old woman remembers
nothing except the piano.

Every morning, her husband fights her
to accept that he has to wash her face,
and he sits next to her while she crumbles
at the thought of using a fork to eat.

He does not watch her in her private time
when she is sitting on the bench
and her feet are attempting the pedals.
He waits at the window
for the illumination that breaks from clouds
like the breath of a child
who has beaten the others in a race.
The old woman's husband does not look
at the old woman remembering the piano.
He looks at the light on the windowsill.

For him, they are the same thing.

* * *

Yesterday, I went to the library; I consider it a treat to myself on my errand-running days. (Hey, who just shouted "Nerd!" back there? Quiet, you!) The library has one of my favorite poetry anthologies in its stacks: A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz (who himself is just an incredible poet). It's a collection of poems from around the world, many written in the twentieth century (if you know someone who needs evidence of what modern poetry has to offer, I highly recommend having them pick up this book). Sometimes, as much fun as it is discovering writers and finding new stories or poems or styles to entertain your brain with, it helps to go back to familiar material that provides comfort and allows you to remember what you love about the medium.

The library was one of the first places I hit after returning from the warehouse trip in September 2010. Actually, I think it went library, then grocery store, and then maybe bank. :p The poetry I chose to arm myself with (along with Ted Kooser's The Poetry Home Repair Manual, because I sure needed repair help) was the work of Philip Levine, a poet who's still alive and working, though he's quite older now. I had stumbled across his work by complete accident several months back; his most recent book of poems, News of the World, was on the "new releases" shelf at the library, and the jacked design was simple and elegant enough to interest me. And I was so glad that I picked it up, because, as I found out, he's considered one of our great living poets, and for good reason. He's got that Walt Whitman folksiness in that he writes about the lives of members of the regular working class, but his language is so tight, and the narrative feel of his poetry is so strong. He's just a damn good story teller. (And he's also anthologized in A Book of Luminous Things -- isn't it great how this all comes full circle?)

Levine's narrative style is what I think influenced the shape and style of this poem, which is alright; considering that it's a free verse poem, I think that the line breaks fell in places that lend to nice little twists. The motivation for its subject matter came from, well, my life. In addition to worrying that I had lost my ability to write poetry while at the warehouse, I was plagued by another, recurring fear that I have -- the onset of Alzheimer's. No, it's not something I'm worried about developing soon, but it seems to have hit everyone in late age on my mother's side, and so sometimes I feel that I only have so many years with a functional brain in which I have any chance of getting my writing done. Fear can be a great inspiration some days. At least it got me back on the horse.

(Oh, one other way that my life inspired my poetry: After the warehouse trip, I took some of the money I earned and bought something that I had wanted for a long time. Let me tell you, there's nothing like trying to play a musical instrument again after years of not playing it to make you feel really, really old.)