Stage Fright

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The other day at the swimming pool I watched a couple try to force a young child to jump into the deep end. The child, a girl with a single black braid and a pink suit, was clinging to her mother's leg and screaming while her father begged and cajoled and finally screamed back at her. We should just throw you in. That's what my mother did to me, and that's how I learned to swim. The teenage-lifeguard, who usually looks so bored, watched the scene with worry and interest.

I was reminded of my own childhood . . . of one of my earliest swimming memories. I was young enough that all five of my older siblings were at the pool, and my father was there as well.  I could not have been much more than three or four, and my father was tossing me into the air and letting me splash into the water, then tossing me up again. He did it over and over, and as I rose up and splashed, rose up and splashed into the blue swimming pool, I remember the glittering sun and water all around and the feeling of giddiness mixed with pure terror. I could see that everyone watching me.  Watching and laughing and cheering.  I loved the attention, and I knew, even in my small child's mind, that if I cried or showed fear, the attention would vanish or turn sour.  It was a test, and I wanted to pass. I wanted to be happy, or at least appear happy, and thus keep everyone else happy, too. And for a moment I remember watching myself from outside, rising and falling and splashing. It was easier not to be in my body.

It's that same feeling I sometimes get before performing. Stage fright, being out of my body, watching myself, watching my body, trying to make it smile and laugh and do what I want it to do, not what I feel like doing. 



One of these days . . .

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I'm still in vacation mode, still in moving mode, still in missing my friends from Youngstown mode, still in having visitors in the house mode, but I am slowly working my way back to my desk. Fingers crossed for more work time.

And I did (I think, with much help) finally get the blog to work. Now it should only send out updates once a week, so if you are kind enough to subscribe to the thing, don't worry--you won't be overwhelmed on the times when I actually blog a bit. Only on Thursdays will you hear from this space!



First Draft, Best Draft?

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Apologies if you received this already--yesterday. Jimmy has been helping me fix my blog so that it actually sends posts to subscribers, which means I have been taking the post down, testing it, and putting it back up again. So I am not sure if this one was sent out yet. But I am very excited to have an actual working blog! Or so I hope! And I am thankful that people actually want to sign up for it! 

Jimmy and Stephanie also gave me a book called HANDS for Christmas--after I admitted I cannot draw hands. Even comic hands  take me forever to draw. Seriously, have you tried drawing hands?  They usually look like alien body parts, not something you want at the end of your arm. The more I work on them, the more alien they become. So I like to keep the hands hidden in my drawings. Of course, it could be argued that the hands are the only part of the drawing that is not alien . . .

Which reminds me of editing a poem. How often have I worked and worked on an ending, only to have the ending look like it belongs to another poem. Excessive editing is one of my many truly annoying habits.  I've destroyed so many poems in an effort to fix them--and often discovered, weeks or months later, that the first draft was, in fact, the best draft. Or maybe the third draft, now that I think about it. Or the fourth. No the third one. The second or third . . .

I often have as many as fifty drafts. What a nightmare! But in the end I go back and forth between one or two. 



Happy New Year!

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I was reading the year's recap, and thought I better stop. 2017, argh. It has a lot to be depressed about. But instead of dwelling on that, I decided to open up one of my favorite, passionate, purple poems so I can think of other things, better things, including the truly great . . . 


THE TRULY GREAT by Stephen Spender

I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

(The rest of the poem can be read here.)



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In my last post I talked about the risk of praise, and I am not sure I was correct. I heard from one sibling and a close friend that my parents didn't, to their knowledge, ever praise any of us to our faces. Now I am not sure what is true or false about my latest assessment. But I liked another sister's comment that my parents, my mother in particular, just expected us to grow up, sort of like plants. A little sun and good weather, and we'd be fine.  I think that's probably accurate. She was good with plants. And flower arranging. 

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And the more I think about it, the more  I realize I don't think I'd ever have even tried to succeed as a poet if I had not had such kind professors as David Lehman and Lynn Luria Suckenick and Alberta Turner and Sydney Lea. And they were very generous with the praise. I have this one funny memory of Lynn -- who passed away in 1995--she was so sweet, but this one day she saw a photograph of me pregnant and commented, You looked like a had a goldfish in your belly . . . Are you sure that was your son in there? 

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Drawing and the Cost of Praise

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I am so excited! Jimmy and Stephanie gave me drawing books for Christmas! The first is on botanical line drawings. The author doesn't tell you which flower you are drawing, but I think this one, which I elongated a bit so it's not really accurate, was supposed to be a pansy. 

I was reminded, while drawing and doodling (my favorite escapist activity), how my Dad used to correct my pictures, putting a three dimensional ear or nose on one of my two dimensional girls or boys, or fixing a bird's wing or eye. He was always trying to teach me perspective. And perfections. Sometimes I liked the attention. But often I would get angry. You ruined my picture! It looked fine until you drew on it, I'd tell him. Remember Dad, I'd tell him . . . If you're in the two dimensional world, you can't even SEE the third dimension

Now I am thinking maybe the different dimensions are kind of interesting intermixed. (Not the flower is exactly 3-D yet, but it's moving dangerously out of my comfortable 2-D world.) But maybe the two worlds have something to say to one another. I'm not sure about this . . . 

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 I do think it's interesting that my father wanted an artist in the family, and he was so interested in teaching his children to draw. The only ones who still draw at all are the two he thought lacked talent. Those he praised developed an allergic reaction to art--or rather to drawing and painting. It always made me wonder . . .  

What is the cost of praise??





Okay, I've finally been doing nothing . . . that is, nothing but watching the ceiling spin. Now that the world is coming back into focus, I am seeing the value of slowing down. Or better yet, stopping. 



The Poet and the Poem, the Artist and the Art, The Criminal and the Crime, How Similar Are They?

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I know--it's a funny question, but it first occurred to me when I was getting my MFA at Vermont College, and my beautiful friend, Alice, with her long golden hair (I mean, she's one of the most gorgeous women I have ever met) went out on the town one night with some famous visiting poets, and when she came back, she was horrified. "The poets!" she said. "They were such creeps!" She added that she thought, after reading their work, that they would be "like angels." 

I told her how, before I went to church, I thought Christians were, well, Christian. "Wow, you really are out of touch!" she laughed. "Like what planet did you grow up on?"

I have often wondered, how far we are from the message or story or image we send into the world? Of course, fiction writers aren't held up to the same standard as poets. We don't expect Stephen King to be a psycho-murderer. But poets are often equated with the work they create. Maybe it's a problem of the the first-person in poetry. Am I really the I in my confessional poems? Are you? Yes or no, it creates a certain kind of expectation. We like to identify people in one way or another. 

It's that kind of identification I wonder at. I wonder about it with cities, too. Because I think of places as stories, as personalities almost, and I travel to them with certain expectations. 

When I was moving back to Charlottesville, the story I read about it was of a lovely, exciting, liberal University town. I was relieved to think it had changed so much from the Charlottesville I grew up in, which was a beautiful but racist, sleepy, southern town much like the fictional Lessington, Virginia I wrote about in Miss August. But then, last summer there was that horrific White Supremacist-Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and many have written me to ask what it's like here. Is it a racist city? How is the town coping with what happened. I don't know the answer, but from what I have since read in the Heaphy Report , the story is both beyond upsetting and it's ongoing.

In the aftermath of the event, many of the counter-protesters are being sued, and there are plans for another Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August of 2018.  The  protesters, as one friend explained it, have learned to tell a legally defensible story. They have figured out how to situate themselves on the right side of the law. Or to frame the story in their favor. 

Is that even possible?  I wonder. I am not yet up to speed on the subject. 

But it brings me to my last point, or the last thing rambling around in my brain today . . . 

In his article, The Double Murder Case That Still Haunts Me, Nathan Heller writes about a gruesome double-murder that happened in the 1980s in  Lynchburg, an hour down the road from Charlottesville.  It was a murder that caught the attention of the public back in the 80's and that the short story writer, Peter Taylor, and his wife, the poet, Eleanor Ross Taylor, talked about when we visited  that year. The murderers were top UVA students and talented writers, and they were stunned by the horrific news of what  had happened. Now, years later, a film has been made about the case. And everyone is still questioning, what happened. 

But it is their ability as writers that causes Heller to question them. He writes: 

Both Haysom and Soering were writers in college, and both have become successful authors who have published from prison. That haunted me, too—partly because there’s an inherent slipperiness involved in interviewing people who know how stories are composed, and partly because the coverup itself seemed to have literary attributes. As I put it in the magazine piece: “At least one of the people implicated has been hiding the truth with a writer’s mind."



Halcyon Days and Doing Nothing


The Halcyon is a bird of Greek legend and the name is now commonly given to the European Kingfisher. The ancients believed that the bird made a floating nest in the Aegean Sea and had the power to calm the waves while brooding her eggs. Fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected when the Halcyon was nesting - around the winter solstice, usually 21st or 22nd of December. The Halcyon days are generally regarded as beginning on the 14th or 15th of December.

Katrina sent me this info as a way to help me think about doing nothing as a positive thing, adding that she loves watching the kingfishers in Maine. I'm not sure what they look like there, the one on the R or the L? 

I hate to admit that I'm more apt to think of the Horse Latitudes when thinking of doing nothing. Tossing the horses overboard when there's no wind in your sails . . .  Not to sound too depressing! 


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What do you want to create?

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So that's the question the counselor asked. Earlier that day, a friend asked me a similar question, Why did you first want be a poet? 

I can never answer questions like that. Is want the operative verb? Is it even a poet I want to be? The questions make me feel caged somehow. I am not sure why. 

Maybe because I just don't have an answer. I know what I want to experience, but not what I want the end to be. Or look like. 

I imagine that if I were an artist, say a painter, I might have a goal in mind, perhaps to get into a certain show or sell my work or just paint a tree or something simple. I don't even know what I am going to write about most of the days when I sit down . . . 

Instead I mostly just try to dive in. I want to be like the third one in the Ritsos poem. 

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Doing Nothing?

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I am still thinking about the concept of doing nothing. And I'm not sure exactly what it means. To sit and contemplate. Is that nothing? To wait before acting, to think deeply before making a move or writing. Is that nothing? 

How often I do one thing when meaning to do another. Doodling for example. Instead of writing.  Doodling instead of doing nothing. Doodling when listening. 

These particular doodles with triangular shaped bodies --I began drawing when I was taking piano lessons in grade school. The music book had little triangular-bodied people to demonstrate the liveliness of the music. Or the lack thereof. I fell in love with the triangular people and drew them all over my music notebook. I never practiced the piano. 



Still thinking about the idea of doing nothing

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I am still thinking about the idea of doing nothing as I rush madly about. I thought today, before sitting down to write, I'd do a few knee bends. Rather, I wanted to see if my knees still bend . . .

Tis the season for doing too much. I was listening to the radio, and there was this long story about a man who, in haste, went up on the roof to fix his 900th Xmas tree decoration and fell onto the pavement, shattering his pelvis. Who needs 900 decorations? The poor guy went on to talk about his obsession with decorating--how even after his pelvis was shattered, he had to keep decorating. I imagined how it happened . . .  him up on his roof for hours, arranging his blow-up Santas and Snoopies and candy canes, all of them blowing wildly about until one of them turned and bopped him off his ladder . . . 

It happens. I think so anyhow. Our obsessions, whatever they are, one day turn on us.



Warming up to doing nothing

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Today I had a counseling session, and one assignment I have now is to do nothing. Just for a few minutes. So now I am thinking about doing nothing, and well, I am thinking about all the things I will do today including doing nothing and after doing nothing. And I am thinking about my thinking about doing nothing, and thinking about not thinking about the list of things I don't want to think about doing today while doing nothing including doing nothing and thinking about doing nothing and the list of things that are not nothing that I am thinking about before doing nothing. . .

So now I am thinking maybe I need a little warm up before I do nothing so maybe then I will actually do nothing, assuming my not doing anything body will be warmed up to the feeling of doing nothing and maybe my mind will  follow my body as minds do--and not keep doing what my doing mind is doing now when I say lets not do that, whatever it is you are doing . . . 




Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened.  Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading.  Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.


Thomas R. Smith sent me this lovely Rumi poem in response to my last blog post. I think I will memorize it.




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Moving! It's so incredibly stressful! And sometimes I think how badly I handle stress, how small things like leaky washing machines, stoves that don't fit in the space designed, DMVs with long lines and unhelpful service agents, and well, the long list of decisions and things that must be done  . . . Seriously, these are not life-threantedning events or decisions, but they drive me nuts. And well, sometimes they make me unto someone I don't want to be  . . .  

In the midst of all this, just last week I received a wonderful collection of poems by Thomas R. Smith, and I was stopped by this one poem:


     Like everyone, you have two faces: One of them others see, in restaurants and banks--it's only approximate, the probable cause when you feel misjudged by the world.

     On the inside there's another face through which you reach toward that world: Pure gesture, it registers instantaneously each nuance of feeling, like a film star of Mother Teresa, an interior sky. When you weep, clouds darken with rain: when you laugh, all the pigeons fly up in to the light. 

     It's this face you'd prefer to be known by, so true to its desires, unbelievably beautiful. When two people glimpse it in each other, we call that love--and if someone should see all the secret faces at once, heaven. 




I love this poet, Ulalume González de León!

But I wish I could find her work in English! 

Her poem, "Anatomy of Love," appearing in the long out-of-print anthology THE PROSE POEM and translated from Spanish by Linda Sheer, begins:



Why can't I think, with the left half of my head the same things I think with the right half?

      or why is there a thought a the nape off the neck that doesn't prop up the thought at the forehead, and belies it by making signals from behind?,

      (You ask me: what are you thinking about? --About less than one thing: about so many things!--I answer: about nothing.)

      or why do I think with more layers than an agate of an onion?

      : a thought from the inside grows and pushes until the last shell exploded, and it is also in immediate danger, made thin by another thought which pushes from further inside.

      But I think of you in the inside of the inside, with a thought that grows contrariwise, in centripetal wonder, like a figs flowers: there, where to think about one thing is more than to thing about only one.

And then there is this one . . . 


(dado el producto de la multiplicación de las caricias
el número de golpes de ala por segundo con que la pasión
compensa el peso de los cuerpos
la velocidad adquirida al pensarnos
la resistencia del aire a todas nuestras iniciativas voladoras
el intervalo admisible entre la temperatura máxima y la
temperatura mínima del deseo
las intermitencias con que fabricamos nuestra continuidad
el margen de error tolerable para un ingreso simultáneo
en el olvido que sabes
las probabilidades de reincidir por falta de recuerdo
la mayor o menor necesidad de un postre metafísico al
banquete carnívoro
el porcentaje de limaduras virutas rebabas que pueden ser
recicladas in situ
y la fuerza de gravedad de toda alegría
y la trayectoria asíntota al más estrellado techo)
la condición necesaria y suficiente de este amor.

Even the google translator lets you see how lovely this poem is ---


Calculate (given the product of the multiplication

of caresses

the number of wing beats per second

with which passion compensates for the weight of the bodies

the speed acquired when thinking

the air resistance to all our flying


the permissible range between the

maximum temperature and the

minimum temperature of desire

the intermittences with which we manufacture our continuity

the margin of error tolerable for simultaneous entry

in oblivion you know the chances

of reoffending due to lack of memory

the greater or lesser need for a metaphysical

dessert at carnivore feast

the percentage of filings chips

burrs that can be recycled in situ

and the force of gravity of all joy

nd the asymptotic trajectory to the most starry ceiling)

the necessary and sufficient condition of this love.



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Poetry --unreal?

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I keep listening to the news, thinking I should be doing something logical, something "real." But what?  Certainly not writing poems.  I so often think of poetry as unreal. And of course, in many ways, it is. I notice this esp. when I try talking about it to non-poets and well . . .

I mean, today I was talking to a repairman who asked me what I write about. I didn't want to say--- I am writing about a stink bug who turns into a man.  And the bug is horrified to be human. Yeah. Right.

But the fact is I kind of agree with my stink bug. (Losing reality here, admittedly.) But just thinking about what people do to each other and the planet, it's hard not to be horrified. And, well, like my imaginary stink bug I keep hoping I am just having a bad dream. That some day I will wake up and Trump and the KKK and the White Supremacists and Nazis and the Koch boys and  . . . yeah, so many in the current administration, will all be banished. Exiled to some distant planet where I never have to hear about them again.  I envision them on a space ship traveling to some distant galaxy.

Often at night I fall asleep, hoping I will wake up to better news. I was thinking of that and, well, Kafka, when I wrote in my piece:

"Perhaps it was just a nightmare," the stink bug reasoned, and with that, he closed his eyes, lay as still as a statue, and tried to fall back asleep.

A while later, he heard birds singing through an open window and he cringed, remembering how a bird once devoured his fellow stink bugs. But then a soft yellow light filled the room, and he felt a brief moment of peace as he remembered that he was safely indoors. 

The idea of safety, of being separated from the nightmare, is key in my psyche. As if death and evil is only out there. And reality. 

Maybe it was the thought of safety that got me wondering -- trying to decide whether I wanted to be writing about a stink bug or just a boy who suddenly wakes up as a man. Or a girl who suddenly becomes a woman--

remembering how terrifying an adult can appear to a child. And not just physically.  

I remember thinking, back when I was a kid, how creepy adults were, always obsessing about power and money and fame and I don't know--so many boring things. I hated how grownups sat around drinking, never moving much, never really playing, never being any fun, never seeming to have much fun either.  

Maybe that's one thing we get to do as poets--have fun, imagine, dream . . . I mean, seriously. I sometimes think it should be illegal to have this much fun. 


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It's that time of year--stink bugs and ladybugs coming in to stay warm and to cozy up with us. Even when I close my eyes for a minute, I see stink bugs. They are so disgusting, and they plop down on my page, and one somehow managed to find its way into my printer. The stink of cardamon and bug juice, nauseating. 

They remind me of Kafka. How it might be to turn into stink bug, or vice versa. 

And how painful and exciting any metamorphoses is. And all the assumptions one has about transformation. I like how we assume the butterfly is naturally more lovely and happy than the worm. But does the worm think so? The worm might love its simple sleek and pink body. Its  moist, youthfulness. His simplicity. And being so close to the earth . . . 

Here in lovely Virginia, I think of Ohio.  

And so today, writing, I was playing with a version of Metamorphoses:

Opening his eyes one morning, a stink bug was alarmed to see that he had been transformed into a man. Clearly some terrible mistake has been made,” he thought, looking with horror at his soft skin, the huge dome of his belly, and worst of all, what hung between his thighs. What happened to his sleek rectangular form, his neat angular legs, his lovely pointy proboscis? he wondered.



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Seriously Alice!




We finally moved to Virginia, and after months of planning the move--boxing our life up and then unboxing, we are finally here. And I have this feeling (fear) that I am losing touch with my creative self. Days go by and I don't get to the computer or have an interesting thought in my mind. I don't mean to complain too much. After all, so many good thing have happened this fall. We live in a magical house on top of a hill that backs up onto miles of woods. At night it's so dark, we see only the stars and the moon. No street lights, no neighbors, nada. Sometimes the coyotes howls and wake us the middle of the night. But some days, in the mornings I find myself looking in the mirror and asking, where's Alice?

Okay, that needs some explanation, but I think of Alice as my creativity, my magical side, the girl who dives down rabbit holes day after day. There's no place like a rabbit hole. But sometimes Alice goes down there alone while I go about my business. And she begins to shrink. Alice being Alice likes to shrink. 

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