Shy

When I was in elementary school, my teachers described me as “shy.” A few of them commented that I was “creative” and “smart.” It’s strange how these adjectives for character traits came to shape how I perceived and pegged myself, and I suppose I’m not alone in this. I considered creativity to be something positive and smartness a little daunting, but I felt ambivalence around the term shy. In the 1960s, shyness could be an admired trait among girls because it meant we were not disruptive. But I didn’t think that was all so wonderful, when the children I admired were often loud and funny. While teachers might have appreciated shyness in a pupil, children tended to think me nerdy or, worse, standoffish and snobby. Shy was not much of a compliment.

shy (adj.) late Old English sceoh “timid, easily startled, shrinking from contact with others,” from Proto-Germanic *skeukh(w)az “afraid” (source also of Middle Low German schüwe, Dutch schuw, German scheu “shy;” Old High German sciuhen, German scheuchen “to scare away”).

Online Etymology Dictionary

Hence the metaphor of the shrinking violet, the wallflower. I was fond of plants, but I did not necessarily want to be one. The introverted, reflective young person is seldom socially popular in the USA, and my budding self-confidence took a hit in the public school environment. Was I really timid and easily frightened–or was I just dreamy, bookish, unconventionally funny, skinny, tall, bespectacled, and not particularly socially adept?

Elena Elisseeva, Spring Violets @ fineartamerica.com

One trait I developed as a shy child was a capacity to listen to others. I wanted to hear their stories, their points of view, their silly songs, their big ideas. What I regret is that later on, when I gained some self-confidence and began telling my own tales or dispersing acquired knowledge and advice, I lost some of my listening ability. It took hard work and practice on my part to feel secure when speaking to groups, and I started with the hardest practice: reading my own poetry aloud to other people. Eventually the shyness wore off, for the most part.

Then I had to get the listening back. Raising children was a tough balance between saying and listening. I fault myself for not listening quite enough. As an instructor, I found it difficult to listen to a group of students: too much cacophony, too many distractions, hard to gauge where the conversation was headed. I’ve always felt more comfortable with one-to-one tutoring, which makes listening so much easier. As this semester has wrapped, I find I am already dwelling on the fall. What did covid-protocol instruction teach me? Mostly that the listening is even more important than I thought. The students still feel freaked out; overwhelmed by, more than excited about, their futures. I can’t blame them and want to make room for their stories…not to shy away from them, especially if any of them are feeling “timid, easily startled, shrinking from contact with others.”

Important

In his recent book Singer Come from Afar, Kim Stafford suggests the difference between great poems and important poems has something to to with the occasion of their relevance. He says important poems “are utterances written as a local act of friendship or devotion, and given to a person, shared at an occasion, or performed in support of a cause.” Such a poem may later be considered a great poem, though more often would be relegated to the status of “an expendable artifact of the moment.” Framing poems as expendable artifacts does seem accurate in many regards. A page, that can be burned or shredded; an oral performance, uttered into time and lost thereafter; a digital event, that can be corrupted or invisibly archived in the “cloud”–those fragments and unfinished pieces we let languish and eventually discard. Perhaps important to us once, these poems are ephemera.

Stafford’s recent collection celebrates the local and the relevant, even the immediate, at the risk of not being lasting, whatever that may mean. Published in 2021, the book includes a selection of pandemic-related poems, many of which appeared on his Instagram feed @kimstaffordpoetry. Few of these poems are “great” in the literary sense, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean they are not worthy of publication; this reader appreciates the urgency in the pandemic poems, the need to connect with others sharing the predicament of “social distancing.” We should not ignore the value of local, person-centered poems, narratives of the everyday. Not every human interaction requires epics, and really–the majority of contemporary poems address the small important events and metaphors that sometimes resonate with larger aims. My own work tends that way, so I’m not one to talk about greatness.

Besides, there are a couple of poems in Stafford’s book that will hold up well to literary explication, poems I have already enjoyed re-reading, such as “Chores of Inspiration” and “Do You Need Anything from the Mountain” with its lines “Bring me that skein of fire/that hangs in intimate eternity, after//the dark but before the thunder, when/the bounty of yearning in one cloud/reaches for another…”

I guess each of us has the capacity to evaluate what it is we consider important and what we consider great. I happen to like the bounty of yearning in Kim Stafford’s clouds.

~

Revision revisited

National Poetry Month comes to a close this week, as does my experiment with revising someone else’s poem. It was a fascinating practice, because it involved a kind of interpretation and re-imagining, taking–in this case–a poem written in Portuguese in 1928, and seeing whether through revising, I might make it mine (if not make it new). In slightly less than a month, I reworked the poem ten times. That’s a pace much quicker than I generally revise my own work. Which also made for an interesting process.

No judgment on the outcome, such as it is. The purpose of the prompt was to keep me writing and to remind me to get revising my poems, and it did have the intended effect. When emotional, physical, job or life obstacles clutter the writer’s terrain, attending to a writing project–however arbitrary–can have a salubrious effect. Or at least grease the wheels a bit.

The initial piece: I randomly chose the following poem by Pessoa in the heteronym of Ricardo Reis, in Honig & Brown’s translation:

"Whatever stops is death, and is our death"

Ricardo Reis (Pessoa)

Whatever stops is death, and is our death
If it stops for us. That very shrub now
    Withering, takes with it
    Part of my present life.
In everything I saw, part of me remained.
With all I saw that that moves I too move.
    Nor does memory distinguish
    What I saw from what I was.
~~

That was my ground zero. Perhaps I chose it because it reminds me a bit of Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” I will not reproduce all ten ‘versions’ I drafted, though that might interest someone (who exactly, I don’t know…). Here, however, is the tenth version, which sounds much more like me:

Revision
            after a poem by Ricardo Reis {Fernando Pessoa}
                        “Whatever stops is death…”

Hurrying to wait,
I contemplate
the final cessation
which
like the intersection
of Lanark Road and Rt. 309
lies up ahead:
red light, stop sign.
 
At a less determinable
distance, death does its duty—
part of me goes dying daily
each fallen leaf
dry stalk and road-killed
grey squirrel
pulls me closer
to my own departure
the way
a mother grasps her
child’s hand while running
to catch a crosstown bus—
hurrying.
 
I imagine memories
will dissipate, and freeze—
slowness and blur
will burgeon
until I can’t discern
the glistening new cicada
from its static husk
or morning’s gleam from dusk’s
cluttered, cloudy smog
or red lights from yellow
 
change will be stopped
at that intersection because
I will no longer know who
or what it is I was.
 

~~

One of the things I take away from this effort is that I do have a recognizable voice in my work. That was something I fretted over for many years, the concept of possessing a poetic voice. I have written in so many styles and taken different approaches to work and, for awhile, topic, that younger me worried that I had not developed a voice. Apparently someone long ago convinced me of the importance of having a recognizable voice; now, I barely recall why lacking it would feel like such a terrible thing. But reading my revision of Pessoa’s original, I sense his idea but hear my voice and my interpretation of his idea.

I’m not sure this is the final draft–whether this poem is finished or not, or whether it ever will be. I thank Pessoa for providing the starting point for the experiment and for making me stop and consider whether memory distinguishes who I am from who I was.

~

Finally, a recent brief poem in One Art Poetry Journal: https://oneartpoetry.com/2022/04/21/passover-by-ann-e-michael/

Process parallels

The weather warmed and got windy, and that bodes reasonably well for garden prepping even if the last frost date is still almost a month away. I got digging, sowed more spinach and carrots, cheered on the lettuce sprouts, and–with some help from Best Beloved–pried most of the winter weeds out of the veg patch and set up a raised bed or two.

While I was out there pulling creeping charlie and clover and reviewing my garden plan for this year, it occurred to me that my process in gardening parallels my process in writing. My approach to each has similarities, probably due to my temperament though perhaps due to the way I go about problem solving. The process is part habituation or practice and part experiment, with failure posing challenges I investigate with inquiry, curiosity–rather than ongoing frustration. And sometimes, I just give up and move on without a need to succeed for the sake of winning.

I have no need to develop a new variety of green bean nor to nurture the prize-winning cucumber or dahlia. My yard looks more lived-in than landscaped; on occasion, we’ve managed to really spruce the place up, but it never stays that way for long. I admire gorgeous, showy gardens but am just as happy to have to crawl under a tree to find spring beauties, mayapples, efts, rabbit nests, mushrooms. My perennials and my veg patch grow from years of experimentation: half-price columbines that looked as though they might never recover, clumps of irises from friends’ gardens, heirloom varieties I start from seed. The failures are many, but I learn from them. Mostly I learn what won’t grow here without special tending I haven’t energy to expend, or I learn which things deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and squirrels eat and decide how or whether to balance my yearning for food or flora with the creatures that live here and the weather I can’t control. There are a few things I’ve learned to grow reliably and with confidence–ah, the standbys! But the others are so interesting, I keep trying.

Writing poems? Kind of similar. After so many years of working on free-verse lyrical narrative, I feel confident in my control of those poems and can usually tell when they’re not operating the way I want them to. Then I wait and revise and rethink, but there’s a familiarity to the process. Whereas I am far less confident with sonnets–nonetheless, sometimes a poem really works best in a form like that. So I know I have to expend more energy on it. Other times I find myself needing to experiment. I try mimicking another poem, tearing apart my line breaks, or revising in a form I barely know. I play with puns or alliteration, alter punctuation to stir up the rhythm or surprise the reader (or myself). Breaking my habitual approach to starting or revising a poem leads to curious results, sometimes intriguing ones.

But, like my garden ambitions, my writing ambitions exist more as a means to learn and experiment. I do not set out to produce the decade’s best poem or to develop a unique style or form that academics will admire and study. (I just made myself chuckle.) Heck, most of my work has not yet seen print–and with good reason. Not every rose is an RHS Garden Merit award winner.

For now, here’s a poem I wrote over a decade ago, one that will be appearing in a forthcoming chapbook. More on that when I know more myself.

~

STILL LIFE WITH WOMAN

Loose sleeve envelopes her brown hand
which rests upon an apple or a secret 
cupped beneath; only the stem shows,
fruit’s oblate body intimated by
the solidity of her skin against
the table’s plane.
This is a moment undiscovered,
a painting by Vermeer—
blue, white, quince-yellow, poised—
her palpably-dimpled wrist sloping
toward the precise, thumbnail shadows of
her relaxed fingers. We know
blood imperceptibly alters the shape of her veins
every second her heart beats, we know her womb
continues its cyclical pulse, that she inhales
and exhales, a living form, yet—
still: an inclination of the white, loose sleeve,
half an eye open, she covers some promise.
This is only one second before
surprise or boredom, a miniature:
one of those moments we find ourselves
in parity with every other thing,
equal in being to quince, fan, mirror,
that pitcher of water on the sideboard,
that window, full of light.

~

Revision practice

It is National Poetry Month again, and this year, in recognition of the celebration, I have started a practice to experiment with, just out of curiosity and to give myself a nudge. Many of my poetry colleagues invest a month in writing a poem a day or reading a poetry book each week or posting a poem daily on their social media platforms. It’s important to remind ourselves why we treasure and delight in poetry.

I chose a simple project that requires frequent re-imagining/re-imaging. For my starting point, I picked a poem at random from a collection of Fernando Pessoa’s work. I copied the poem, by hand, into my journal and re-read it a few times. Then I turned the page and rewrote it, “revising” it in the way I might revise a poem of my own. My plan is to repeat this process after a day or so, each time revising from the most recent version. In a short time, the poem will have moved away from being Pessoa’s piece–perhaps bearing little to no resemblance to the original…a sort of whisper-down-the-lane approach. The intention is to consciously alter image and voice in each re-imagining of the draft, though I’m not sure how well I can hew to my intentions. We shall see.

from City Lights Books.

Why I decided on Pessoa for this project, I don’t really know; but I think there’s something perfect about using one of his pieces as springboard. Because Pessoa was kind of a springboard for himself–he created several writer-selves who wrote poems and critical prose: heteronyms, he termed them. The poem I used was “by” his persona named Ricardo Reis. Adam Kirsch wrote a good introduction to Pessoa’s peculiar obsession with being a non-person in a 2017 New Yorker article. By revising something by Pessoa in my own voice and through my own images, perhaps I nurture his pursuit of dissolving the self.

It occurs to me now that the poems of several contemporary writers may have induced me to try this writing prompt, most recently Daisy Fried in The Year the City Emptied (which I highly recommend). Her collection consists of “loose translations” of Baudelaire, reimagined in Philadelphia during the covid outbreak while her husband was dying. It’s not a cheerful read–but then, neither is Baudelaire–nevertheless, the resulting poems are powerful and vividly interesting.

So, back to my little project for April: I figure this need not be a daily practice, though I have managed to get to revision three by now–so it is moving apace. The deepest challenge is not the revision, as I enjoy revising and wish I had more time and energy for it. The challenge is just that: time and energy! As the semester sidles past mid-terms into the final stretch, I get busier at work; in addition, my chronic health conditions have moved into a frustrating flare lately, leaving me fatigued and feeling as though my brain were swaddled in cottonwool and embroidery floss. The news from Ukraine drags on sadly in the background of my day-to-day. My mother’s aphasia worsens. I am dealing by plodding away, sometimes without much brilliance, at the revision challenge. Also by watching the goldfinches as they molt into their yellow plumage… and urging my tomato seedlings to flourish in their little indoor pots.

Then I pluck daffodils and set them in vases. There’s nothing like fresh flowers on the dining table to cheer a low mood. Onward to revision four…

~

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

Home is where?

Yesterday morning, I went to a local library to attend a writing workshop on the theme of ‘home.’ In my own work, when I stop to consider themes that recur, some form of dwelling appears in image and topic. Frequently. Nests, burrows, houses, cities, places. Love, death, kinship, the natural environment, and home. My first book* used the process of housebuilding as its motivating metaphor for perfectly natural reasons (we were indeed building a house), but both before and after that group of poems, the theme of home has been a common one I have felt drawn to describe.

Even, now I think of it, the body as home: this structure of flesh and bones and blood and synapses that houses my consciousness.

My parents left their homes and families, and when I was a child we moved three or four times–not enough to feel any loss of stability but enough not to feel particularly rooted to any one place. I suppose I can say that I carry home with me, in my sense of being a conscious body in a space surrounded by an environment about which I am curious. I do not, however, feel rooted to a culture, community, or extended family who live in one region; I have no region, city, state, place, house that I claim as mine and refer to when I refer to myself. Among the ten people in the workshop yesterday, I was a bit of an outlier in that respect. Some of the participants felt split between two homes/places, others felt rooted, and still others had felt rooted but were feeling the connections break.

I found it hard to say where my home is. Maybe it’s imaginary? Portable? I used to daydream about living in an Airstream trailer. Though I’d need a second one just for books…

Airstream Corp.

~

Which brings to mind something one of the workshop attendees said about feeling at home in a library. Several of us nodded in agreement, and he added that the library–the public library–functions as a kind of matrix. I would add that’s true for one’s private library, as well, books providing a kind of collage of interests and influences and teachings that can be seen as a kind of matrix to the book-collector’s consciousness, loves, and interests. Speaking strictly for me, in this case.

The house I have inhabited for nearly 25 years now, the house my Beloved and I designed, helped to build, inhabited, raised our children in: this is as close to a ‘true home’ as I have ever had. And yet: is it my home, my rooted place, my last place, the dwelling-in I must have to feel stable and secure and surrounded by love and nature? I’m not so certain about that.

It’s beautiful here, especially in springtime. Yet as I consider friends and students and strangers who have had to pick up and leave on short notice, possibly never to return–it would be hard, but I could leave home. And, for now at least, I still have a choice to go or stay.

~~

*If you are interested in reading that first poetry collection, it is called More Than Shelter. It’s out of print, but you can contact me and I’ll send you one for $8.00 including postage. Many thanks.

Squalls

It’s still March; and yes, a few daffodils had begun to bloom–and yesterday the weather was raw and today it is frigid, and both afternoons I got stuck in snow squalls while driving. Squall: a good word, apparently Old Norse in origin and related to squeal. My students were cursing the return to cold air. I put my mittens on and endeavored to teach myself patience. We do need the cooler currents, but the worst things about overall global warming are the meteorological extremes, the cold that is so cold and the snow that is oddly early or late and deep, the hurricanes, the hailstorms and tornadoes, the flooding.

Tree frogs know how to take care of themselves. They leave the trees and go back into amphibian dormancy until the weather breaks again. The shallow burrow where a tree frog waits out a spring freeze is called a hibernaculum. Days like this one, when the winter smacks back the warmth again, a hibernaculum appeals to me.

Having just returned from three days at a writers conference [the AWP], the concept of a solo burrow to recoup my energy fits the bill. The conference–largely due to covid 19– was not as well attended as those I have been to before (& required masks and a vaccine certificate); also, the Philadelphia Convention Center is vast, so I did not feel overly worried about the virus. The event felt as overwhelming as ever, though, and hard on an introvert. I did attend with writerly buddies, and met nice folks and learned new things. I remembered the lessons of past conferences in terms of pacing myself, purchasing books in a manageable fashion, and not lugging too much stuff around: general attending-a-conference navigation. One thing I will grouse about was my own inability to use a phone app to figure out what was going on where. My phone is small, and I am inept at its tech capacities. I prefer a paper guidebook, though I suppose that’s not as environmentally friendly.

Re-entry into my routine was bumpier than it used to be. I had post-conference physical aches and fatigue, and I felt oddly rattled intellectually, as if all those marvelous and interesting poems, concepts, people, theories, books, journals, programs, and voices had jumbled themselves into my brain and not finished synthesizing. I suppose that about describes it, too…it is a LOT to try to connect and to sort through. Worth it, however.

The upshot? I need my hibernaculum to screen me from the squall. But spring will come.

Photo by Eva Elijas on Pexels.com

Conventional

It’s been a long time since I attended a convention, concert, or any large event. Thanks to covid, longer than usual. This year, I’m braving the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual conference–in person, next week–since it’s being held near me, in Philadelphia, this time. Never one for large crowds or rooms full of strangers, given my natural inclination to internalize or curl up in a corner with a book, I have nevertheless attended AWP in the past and have found it supplies me with creative energy in the form of writers I need to read, intellectual ideas I want to explore, and reasons to keep writing.

~

The conference provides a good place to meet up with fellow writers I know mostly “virtually” via social media or email, and to see folks who live far from me; it also features well-known writers in readings, panels, and conversation–always an excellent experience. I’ve blogged about past conferences (if you’re interested, type “AWP” in the Search form on this page, and a bunch of posts will come up). Attendees do not have to be academics or involved in creative writing programs to attend. I’m excited!

Meanwhile, the month of March does its typical lunge and feint, volt, and passe arriere as it heads toward springtime…I never know what to expect, weather-wise. Today: mild and almost 70 F. I’m hoping we get a string of 50-degree days that permit some garden preparation. But then again, that’s always what I hope for in March.

New in the outdoor garden this week: the first bumblebees have emerged. There’s one in this photo, amid the iris reticulata–

bumblebee, just left of center; iris reticulata

~

My tomato seeds have sprouted in their little seed-starting pots by the sunny window. Gardeners must be optimists. I guess I learned that from my dad.

In which my dad appears

When does bereavement permit the writer to get back to the writing process? I have had quite a few conversations about this topic in the past few decades, and the answer’s pretty obviously “It depends.” I think of Donald Hall writing during Jane Kenyon’s illness and death and afterward–the stunning poems of Without. When my friend David Dunn died, I wrote immediately and often, sorrow emerging through elegies and remembrance. But I was younger then, and less experienced in the arena of bereavement.

During my mother-in-law’s two-year decline toward dying, I found myself writing about the challenges we faced–physical, emotional, communicational (that’s not a word, but I’m leaving it here all the same). Afterward, I could not/did not write. What interferes?

Why my thoughts turn this way: because, lately, my dad keeps turning up in my poem drafts.

I did not write much last year and did not submit any work.* For some reason, though I blogged and wrote long emails to friends and read many inspiring books, I did not feel particularly creative. But I wouldn’t have associated that semi-arid year with my father’s death; I figured my creative void was more about covid and an increase in chronic fatigue symptoms.

To jump start myself this year, I signed up for an online workshop (see this post). It has helped–I’ve drafted more poems in five weeks than I wrote in five months last year. But there’s been a peculiar outcome to these poems: despite widely differing prompts, source poems, and initial processes, my dad or something I connect with him appears in almost a third of the new drafts. I wonder what my subconscious is doing behind my day to day routine. Is this a response to bereavement, or a sign that I’ve accepted his death, or a reminder to self of what a huge loss it has been to me?

Not that I have a definitive answer to any of those questions. I do feel grateful for his appearance, though. He had a good sense of humor and loved to sing–nice things to have in a poem.

~

Thanks, Dad.

~

*Well, almost no work. Thanks to Marilyn Hazelton, editor of red lights tanka journal, I did submit tanka poems in 2021; and she accepted a few for this season’s edition (print only).

Prompted

I have been composing new poems, a welcome development spurred in part by my participation in a poetry workshop (see my last post here). Meanwhile, the college semester has resumed, and my colleagues who teach poetry have been discussing and sharing writing prompts.

For those readers who are not poets: A writing prompt is a sort of assignment in associative thinking or use of a craft strategy that the instructor offers as a form of inspiration or motivation to get creative writing started. There are entire books on this topic. Most writers go through dry spells or low motivation, and teachers need new ideas to keep their students doing the actual practice of writing even when bolts from the blue do not arrive to shake the creative spirit into gear.

I will admit to mixed feelings about prompts. Prompts can act as shortcuts to the process of composing, but I am the kind of writer who prefers the long haul; for some reason, the struggle of finding something to say, and an interesting way to say it, assists me in writing poems. I’m not in a hurry. I revise frequently. If it takes a long time to get to the finished poem, so be it. Sometimes I’ve followed a prompt and produced quite a nice poem, but maybe the voice or style or approach does not feel like my own. That’s a potential downside to prompt use. I have read poems by other writers that sound like prompt-produced poems. Some of them are fine work and yet…

This isn’t to suggest prompts lead to inauthentic or cookie-cutter poems (though that can happen, especially with inexperienced poets new to the task). I think it depends on how the prompt is presented or written and, in addition, the environment surrounding the process of thinking about writing. What works best for me is a prompt that makes suggestions I have to complete or devise for myself. Ambiguity with specifics, if that makes any sense–or specifics with ambiguity.

The environment in which I’m currently working includes a group of seven people, with whom I had not previously been acquainted, meeting online, and a moderator/leader who makes observations non-judgmentally and asks questions concerning where this poem draft could go next. And yes, there are also prompts. What I like about Elena Georgiou’s prompts is their open-endedness. Because none of us are beginning writers, we feel free to disregard any part of the prompt that doesn’t appeal to us–or to follow it closely to force us out of well-worn poetry habits–depending on our internal environment on the day we happen to be tuning in or trying the prompts. We are a group of independent people who are collectively thinking about writing. That’s something of value.