One wild and precious life

Yesterday, the news that Mary Oliver had died rippled outward on social media. My Facebook timeline was filled with Oliver’s poetry, with her beautiful, unadorned face. Like others, I noticed that many of the articles being hastily thrown together seemed to omit the great love of her life, Molly Malone Cook. I also noticed that some of the snark that followed Mary Oliver around in life was continuing after her passing.

Many of the people who I saw mourning Oliver’s passing yesterday were not members of capital P Po-Biz. They were just folks who ran across a handful of Mary’s poems when they needed a lifeline, when they needed a poem that said you are part of this world, your life is precious. These people felt seen by Mary Oliver. They carried her poems on folded-soft paper in their wallets, taped them to their computer monitors, and probably never bought a copy of one of her books.

Mary Oliver had little to do with Po-Biz. I always appreciated that about her. She wanted to be outside in the wild wind more than she wanted to stand in front of adoring crowds. A goodly number of the Po-Biz world looked down their noses at Mary Oliver’s work. Some of that had to do with the fact that she was a woman, a lesbian, a person who didn’t often go to glitzy parties. They said she was soft, sappy, a (god-forbid) nature poet.

Yesterday, I looked at the world a little differently because of Mary Oliver’s passing. Yes, the world felt less observed, as if a spark of love for it had guttered. But also, I thought of all the times I was warned off writing about the natural world. Poems I’ve written about trees have been held up in workshop to ridicule. Even folks in the “eco-poetry” world have suggested that my poems need more of a call to action about the environmental crisis. These are the same folks who dismissed Oliver.

I’m not arguing that everything Mary Oliver wrote was genius. But, I am beginning to connect the dots in the denigration of women (soft, gentle, spiritual, accessible, adjectives used to signify not serious), the destruction and desacralization of the natural world, and some of the poetry that is lauded in our current Po-Biz culture. And I am thinking deeply about the (at this moment) 601 people who shared the graphic I made of Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life” on social media. How deeply we need to be reminded of astonishment, of our duty (dare I say sacred?) to share with each other what will buoy.

Yesterday, the sun was still behind the mountains across Kachemak Bay from where I live when news of Mary Oliver’s death came across the internet. But where it would rise, there was a pillar of red light. As I stood there, unashamedly crying, I wondered if it might just be a beacon. A welcome to the radiance of what comes next for Mary Oliver, a welcome party thrown by the poet Eva Saulitis, who passed three years ago on January 16, and the poet William Stafford, whose birthday was yesterday and who has been gone now 26(!) years. These great spirits who put down words that we get to keep. That we get to remember. That we can love, even if we don’t have an MFA. That we can carry forward.

And that is a mighty fine goal for a poet. Perhaps the only goal.

Just one way to unearth your writing…


Not long after I graduated from college, I set my sights on earning an MFA in writing. Of course, I was twenty-one years old and newly married, therefore more than an MFA, I needed to get a job. Off I went into the world of teaching high school English and, well, my writing was relegated to spiral notebooks that I cracked open after I graded 150 to 200 papers twice each week.

As I got older, the dream of an MFA never went away, but it seemed so impossible. How would I put my life on hold for two-three-four years while I went back to school? How could I ask my partner to uproot his life so that I could go to a program that was four states away? Impossible. But I kept writing. I kept reading.

When I turned thirty-five, I felt like I had reached a point in my life where I either had to make a commitment to my writing or I had to admit that I just wasn’t going to. I started considering an MFA again. I wanted a reason to have my feet held to the fire, deadlines to create or else. I wanted a community of writers who were as serious about their work as I wanted to be. I wanted to learn from poets whose work I admired, who were in the “poetry trenches.” But back then (lo way back then, in 2000), there were just a very few low-residency MFA programs, and when you live in Alaska, the idea that you’re going to fly across the country a couple times each year is a ponderously expensive proposition.

I kept waiting for west coast programs to pop up, and yes, they finally did. I was teaching high school again, and I knew that if I didn’t have some reason to keep writing, I’d let the tide of paper grading and class preparation sweep over me. I did some research, sent out my applications to the still small number of low-residency programs on the west coast, and then I waited for rejections. But instead, I was accepted to all of the places I applied! Yahoo!

Flash forward four years later, and I am standing on a small stage in Tacoma, Washington at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop, sweating through my dress. After three years of intense work, I am walking away with an MFA, or in this case an empty diploma cover (they did send the diploma later). But what I was really leaving with was:

  • a large group of amazing writer friends who are part of my vibrant far-flung writing community,
  • a group of established writing teachers who were so kind to help me along my way and to this day still help me every chance they get,
  • an incredible education in the theory and practice of writing poetry,
  • a manuscript that I had spent hundreds (and hundreds) of hours creating under the guidance of three talented mentors,
  • a rock-solid writing practice that I follow to this day which allows me to integrate writing into my insanely busy work schedule,
  • a commitment to myself as a writer and to my poetry,
  • a map to a life of words.

Flash forward eight years, one published book (with a chapbook on the way this fall and a new book on the way next spring), countless hours reading and writing poetry, countless hours teaching poetry at the college level and at conferences, and I will be joining the University of Alaska Anchorage Low-Residency MFA program.

As I prepare for this July’s residency, these are my thoughts: please let me help my students be the best writers they can be, but more, please let me help them find their own map to a life with words. I cannot imagine what my world would be like without the practice of poetry. It is my north star. My solace. My vexation. My continual journey.

If you ever want to ask me questions about the program where I’m teaching or about the program from which I graduated, please feel free to send me an email.

Be All In – Or The Story of 2015

Sunset on January 14th

Oh Todd Henry, this prompt for Quest2015 really froze me in my tracks. My whole body understood that this one isn’t hypothetical, this question is for real. If you knew that your life’s story will be written based upon your choices and actions in 2015, how will you live?

I am currently reading The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling  by Stephen Cope…. thank you Cindy Henson, it’s awesome. Cope is writing about embracing your dharma, the thing that you are uniquely suited to do in the world. One of his examples is the poet Robert Frost. Robert Frost made decisions to support his poetry with his life. He jumped all in. First with the farm, later with moving to England. I’m still reading it, but I think that part of what is holding me back is that I won’t jump all in. A few years ago, I jumped and committed to earning my MFA, and then I half-committed by not taking a full-time teaching gig here in Homer so that I could keep writing. But frankly, now I am stacking the deck against myself, spreading myself too thin, diluting my attention.

I have gotten lost again in the scarcity mindset. I have forgotten that the work is all. The Work, not the outcome. When I manage to remember that, and manage to do the work, everything lines up with no rigging. When I get lost in the oh my god, I’m almost fifty and I need to get the publishing thing and the teaching thing and this and that, I lose my way (i.e. my dharma in Stephen Cope vernacular).

My dharma = connecting to other people through words.
My dharma = writing poetry.
My dharma = sharing poetry.

So how shall I live in 2015 so that my dharma is in the center of my life, not relegated to scraps of time at the margins? Wait! The answer is right there – put my writing at the center of my life, not a half hour in the morning and whatever energy I have left after dinner. Otherwise the story of my life for 2015 will be the story of my life for 2014: wow, she had really great opportunities which she pissed away by running around like a deranged starving chicken. Otherwise, that manuscript which is sooooo close to be finished will never see completion. Those poems will never be submitted for publication. The incredible richness of the world, sea urchins and clouds and puppies and glaciers and rocking chairs, the beauty and sorrow, will pass me by and never reach the page which is altar and memory box and compost heap.

Resist the urge to hedge my bets – well, what if that poetry thing doesn’t work out, maybe you should try this *New Thing* which might be the answer to how you will earn money or fame or safety. Resist the suitcase by the door. Resist the urge for new over nuance. Commit. Be all in. So that the story of 2015 is the story of my life – she wrote poetry, she gave it to the world the best she could, she lived with her heart (and senses) open and shared what came in.