Headfirst into the picture window – Risk in Writing

Just as we finished eating lunch today, a varied thrush flew with great velocity into one of the large windows at the front of our house. We ran to the porch, and I watched as my husband hovered over the quivering bird which grew still. One moment a miracle of flight and the next obliteration. It shook me up to see those feathers splayed on the worn boards of the porch, the indignity of the position, the speed at which the bird ceased to be a bird and became instead something silent and leaden.

This afternoon, I’ve been considering that moment – alive/dead, a threshold one can cross in a flash. I was raised in a house of caution, of no running or you’ll fall, of stay away from high places. My life has been lived mostly at two extremes – full-out risk or completely buttoned-down safety. My writing career has traveled on a smoother continuum. I started out with safe poems. Oh, not safe subjects, but well-contained, relentlessly crafted poems. More and more, I write full-bore towards the dark end of the hallway. Not safe subjects, not neat endings, not tidy, not well-contained. My work is more ragged, even those poems that I’ve chosen to revise (and revise, and perhaps revise again).

I’m afraid to admit that I got published more often with the safe poems. This new work is having a harder time finding a home. Perhaps that’s because it’s not as good, not as thought out, not as polished. Perhaps because it’s more difficult to get a firm grasp on. Perhaps it’s been the luck of the draw. Hard to say.

So here’s the conundrum – do we write into risk, lean into that scary edge, and produce writing that may or may not work, but is certainly not well-behaved, OR do we write safely, prune and prune away to closure, end each poem with a hearty voilà?

Or is there a place somewhere in the middle that does not include the dangers of the picture window? I like to think I’ve found that place in my personal life, but in my writing life? There are certainly a lot of windows out there.

Pocket Epiphany – a life in poetry

Oh dear, has it really been a week since I posted last? At least I was busy with poetry related tasks. I was preparing for a reading. Well, if by preparing you mean talking on the radio (what fun!) and baking treats. I didn’t really give a thought about what I was going to read until two hours before the event because I wasn’t the main attraction. A friend, Eva Saulitis, was releasing her new book Many Ways to Say It (which is amazing, buy it, seriously), and another friend, Wendy Erd, was going to be talking about a fabulous new project that will put a poem in various state parks in Alaska (how cool is that?). I really was along for the ride since I’m on the Poems in Place committee and Eva was nice enough to remind me that I have a book coming out next year.

The truth is I felt lucky to be part of the whole event but somewhat outside it. I was only going to read for five minutes, so I only needed to pick out a few poems. Mostly I wanted to support my friends, so I worried about what goodies to bring and how to get more people to the event. I wanted everyone to have a nice time, but I knew that hardly anyone in the crowd would be there to see me. It was good to be in service to the event and not myself or even my work.

It was an incredibly stormy Saturday night, but the Bunnell Street Arts Center was packed to the gunnels with kind people all there to enjoy poetry and support poets. I sat off to the side and worked the light switches and listened to my friends read their work. I was awed by the sound of their words lifted over the audience and the roaring wind outside.

When it was my turn, I stood in the tiny pool of warm light and read two poems from my book, a fairly polished poem that I wrote last year, and a draft that I’d written a few days before the reading. I felt suspended by the kind attention of the crowd, almost as if I had stepped into a little wooden boat and now floated on the collective breath of the moment.

And afterwards folks said such lovely things to me. I had a chance to talk a lot about Eva’s fine work and the Poems in Place project. I kept thanking people for coming and for their kindness. It was good, beyond good, to talk about poetry with so many people. How could there possibly be over fifty people in my tiny town who cared enough to miss all the other sparkly attractions of the night and even venture out into the stormy weather? And yet, there we were, eating cookies, buying Eva’s book Many Ways to Say It, reaching out to each other over a bridge of words.

Poetry is not dead. We are still connected by our words that crouch and dance and gambol and create bonds between us. This is my life, a life in poetry – a pocket epiphany to carry into the stormy night.

The Art of Imperfection in Poetry (and in life)

I’ve offered the following advice to a few of my writing students: don’t try so hard to be perfect. These students wrote very nice, tidy, wrapped up, often impeccably rhymed and scanned poems. They would present these poems with a flourish. See, they seemed to say, I’ve put everything in its perfect place. And some of those poems really were perfect – perfectly airless boxes, with no room for the reader inside.

There is genuine beauty in imperfection. Take what’s pictured above. Those are spiny rose galls. Inside are tiny wasp larva that have created those amazing structures in which they’ll overwinter. The galls are blushingly other-worldly. You could not by any stretch say that they are perfect, but I think that they are indeed beautiful.

How many of us try so very hard to be perfect in our writing and in our lives? Somewhere along the way, someone has convinced us that to be loved and accepted, we must be without flaw. It’s a dangerous pastime, working towards perfection, because no matter how hard we work, life is by its very nature chaotic and imperfect.

In writing, our yen for perfection leads to all sorts of mischief – writer’s “block,” a continual process of rewrite, a tendency to avoid truly finishing anything. And in the case of a poet, the process of rewriting until the poem is like a tight knot with no crack for the light to get in.

In my own writing, I have been trying very hard to not connect all the dots for my readers, to leave that space that will allow them to enter the poem, bringing with them their own experiences and connections.

And in my life? Well, imperfection is inherent in the natural world – a blossom loses a petal, an insect eats a hole in a spinach leaf, it is a rare stone that is perfectly round. I take my cue from my surroundings and try to be glad of rain during a run or a head cold that insists that I stay close to home, snuggled up reading. Perfect imperfection…