What We Think About That

On the topic of what’s poetry and what’s just therapy or self-expression–in the library today, I found myself sensitive to how many poems do in fact tell stories about the poet’s childhood, or relationships, or an incident (unusual or mundane) in their lives.

I found a thick tome claiming to be a collection of Pushcart Prize-winning poems and flipped through it (it’s one of my guilty secrets, that I’ll flip through an anthology and only finish reading the poems that catch my eye quickly.) Among those few that caught me today were two that most definitely tell personal stories.

“Penumbra” by Betty Adcock creates an image of a six-year-old girl out on a backyard swing the day of her mother’s funeral. “Sequence” by Marilyn Nelson is a series of ten slices of a woman’s life, ranging from childhood through relationships and back again. One person’s story, in each case, but they had phrases that speak to me.

Yes, we overcomplicate the idea of subjects for poetry. In Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams describes a fictional most-beloved-poet:

He wrote about the light in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the darkness in the forest, and what he thought about that.
He wrote about the girl who had left him and precisely what he thought about that.

Here’s a Poem, Now Sleep With Me

Romantic poetry is–well–romantic. But some of it stands out to me as a more blatant bid not only for a partner’s affections but for very specific acts. These poems often reflect the times and culture of the poet, especially when they are a plea by a male poet for the female object of his affections to “come across.”

John Donne’s “The Flea” is one of the examples I remember strongly. In it, Donne argues with a female companion who is resistant to getting physical. He uses the image of a flea that’s just bitten both of them to claim that their blood is now mingled in this creature and that wasn’t a sin, so what does it matter what their bodies do? “Thou know’st that this cannot be said
a sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead…”

Another commonly taught example is Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” In this one, the male character uses time and mortality as an argument, spinning images of history and eternity to convince the object of his desire that it’s folly to waste time on this whole getting-to-know-you business. He warns that if she is obstinate time will snatch away all chance of joy:
“then worms shall try
that long-preserved virginity,
and your quaint honour turn to dust,
and into ashes all my lust.”

When I look at poems like this, I remember the cultures these women lived in. Sex is complicated in my current culture, but the stakes were higher back then. Sometimes I feel anger on behalf of a woman like this, being cajoled into a decision that involved far more risk for her than for the man. An irrevocable decision, one that, according to current beliefs, imperiled not only her future prospects but her immortal soul. Hey, Donne, flea or not there’ll be plenty of shame for that girl if she’s found out. Hey, Marvell, notions of honour aren’t “quaint.”

Well, I suppose poetry is a more ethical weapon than alcohol or drugs for a would-be Casanova. Seduction poetry can be amazing, too; I just prefer it a bit more subtle. I like it to be sensual and evocative–but not directive. Make me have interesting thoughts–but don’t tell me what to do, and why I should do it! I can make my own decisions.

Poetry or Therapy?

I’ve been holding back on rough drafts. I’ve been overanalyzing whether an idea should even be allowed to get to the rough draft stage or not.

I’ve been obsessing over some commentary I read from a poet who runs workshops, one who stressed that aspiring poets who apply for her workshops should be very sure that their work is “poetry, not therapy.”

I’ve been turning that lens on my poems, asking myself sternly whether a poem has any kind of larger impact or is simply a novel way to express my feelings.

I have no problem with a poem being both art and healing–but how do I make sure it’s not only the latter? I tell myself I should simply apply my normal standards: Is there attention to word, to sound, to image? Does someone besides me find it moving in some way? Do bits of it stick in someone’s head?

Nevertheless, I’m struggling with a drive to censor any would-be draft that is inspired by anything to do with my personal experience, especially experiences from childhood or youth. I’m struggling with a voice that tells me I should only write about universal, non-personal themes.

After all, no famous poets ever write about their own experience or internal world *coughbullshitcough*

I pushed through some of this to complete one draft last week; a draft for which the notes have languished in my folder for months. Is it something that would pass muster as more-than-therapy? I don’t know. Do I care? Yes, but not enough to keep from being glad it exists as a draft now.

A Tedious Delusion

I came across a poem by Marge Piercy in the library today. It’s called “For The Young Who Want To,” and it begins like this:

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Artists of all kinds have felt this way; experienced these attitudes. The thin and blurry line that separates talent from delusion is so nebulous, so subjective–yet the way others see us, and often the way we see ourselves, is based upon it.

We fear not being taken seriously. The young fear being looked at indulgently, their work dismissed as unpolished or shallow. The older fear being dismissed as “not good enough” and not even having the excuse of youth.

We fear. We fear the “tedious delusion” more than we fear harsh criticism. We’d almost rather be called bad than banal.

Why do we expose ourselves to this kind of judgment?
Oh, right. Because writing means too much for us to stop, ever, unless our soul dries up.

And what’s so bad about knitting, anyway?

Feral Phrases

It’s getting crazy there in the cage.

Poets say that when a wonderful phrase or line just won’t fit into a poem, or the desired poem just won’t materialize around it, it’s a good idea to toss it into a box or a drawer and leave it there for later use. This helps keep us from forcing a poem to come into being just because we love our special line.

My box feels like a cage, and my fragments are starting to turn on one another. My brain feels as if there’s a spitting, clawing fight going on. And that’s not all–not only is the cage full, but there are at least five longer proto-drafts that want to be developed into the “rough” stage, and I can’t do it right now.

My current bout of depression has sapped my creativity as well as my confidence, but tell that to the cage. They don’t care. They’re fighting for their existence; their chance to come into the light.

I try to feed them with hope and promises; I tell them that this dulled state of mine won’t last forever. I ask them to have faith that their turn will come. I request them to line up neatly, in the order they arrived, to be considered one at a time in a serene manner.

Yeah, that’ll happen.


It belonged to my husband’s paternal great-grandfather, I think. There are several inscriptions, all with the same surname, inside the cover. A thin book, number 199 of the Riverside Literature Series, it proclaims itself to hold “The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher and other Poems and Tales by Edgar Allan Poe.”

It was published in 1897, forty-eight years after Poe’s death. Forty-eight years is a long time, but there must have been people still alive who remembered Poe the man, or learned from those who did. The introduction discusses Poe’s life in far greater detail than I have usually seen, and the tone is more personal. Poe is portrayed as a figure of great controversy, rather than the staple of literature he now seems more to be.

He had his admirers and his detractors; he made friends and enemies. His life was punctuated by brilliant successes inevitably followed by excesses or derelictions that brought things tumbling down. He tried again, and again, painting the familiar tapestry of an addict’s struggles as he danced with alcohol and opium throughout the years. Today, doctors would probably also have pegged him as having bipolar qualities.

I’ve written about seeing and judging the poet in the poem. Here, in this fragile old booklet, I see how much it happens. The editor, himself, seemed to think of this when he wrote:

“…it is perhaps equally idle at present to try to bridge over the chasm that separates his lovers from his detractors. Men will long continue to dispute about his life, and they will not cease to assert or to deny his greatness…but it is equally true that it is of the essence of sound criticism that, as the years go by, we should be able to judge more and more dispassionately the men and works of the past; and we may at least hope that our grandsons will be more agreed as to Poe’s merits and demerits than we are.”

Wisely written. But I wonder if he would have predicted the development of Poe’s place in the world of literature? Would he be surprised to see him in school textbooks, or to know that “Annabel Lee” may be the first love poem many of us ever learned?

Poe was only forty when he died from the effects of his addictions. Those of us who read him now may know that he was a troubled person, or even have studied biographies, but the thousand small failures and offenses are blurred by time. His poems stand more on their own, ready for us to project meaning onto them.

“Who am I to write poems?” we might think. Well, who was Poe to do so?

The Poet in the Poem

I have always been someone who likes to let a story or poem or painting speak for itself. When I like a television show or movie character, I sometimes don’t even want to know too much about the actor who plays him or her.

When I take a poem to my heart, I make it my own. Its language is translated into my personal archetypal code and drawn on the cave wall of my mind, and that’s as it should be for me.

That being said, it’s interesting to learn more about the lives of my favorite poets. It’s inspiring to learn about how, when or even why they wrote what they wrote, or see world events through their eyes. It’s touching and motivating to see some of the sources of their personal pain and notice how they’ve given it unique voice and used it as a creative force.

I don’t believe it’s possible to write a good poem without putting something of ourselves into it. So every time I read a poem, I am taking a look into the author’s psyche. I just don’t want to overanalyze–or make assumptions about–what I am shown.

Some poems appear to invite us into a specific realm of a poet’s personal experience. For instance, when a poem’s written in the first person and involves the narrator being sexually abused, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that this particular poet has had this in his or her life. And, if we do imagine this, we might be right a good deal of the time.

But not all of the time. Poets can write in imagined voices, and although what they imagine also says something about them as a person it isn’t a simple one-to-one correlation.

I’m a woman, and I’ve written several first-person poems in which the speaker is a man. I’ve read some amazing poems written from the perspective of a character very different from the author. Some of the poems I fear to write, but know I will someday, might contain the first-person musings of abusers and perpetrators I have known or who have hurt me.

How scary it is to think a reader might be affected by one and think I did everything my poems do! I’ve done many things I regret, but my writing scours the shadows and comes up with things I hope I won’t ever encounter. So I try not to make assumptions–I am honored to be invited into a poet’s inner life by their work, but I don’t presume to think I know them because of it. They remain a juicy mystery, as are we all.

When the Right Word Starts With “F”

I like to swear.

Not all the time, and I’d never want to use cursing as a substitute for the eloquent and nuanced expression of a feeling. But I like to swear sometimes.

I like to use the word “fuck.” It’s my favorite swear word. I like to use it judiciously–infrequently enough that it has an impact when I do it. It has to carry a punch, whether that punch is angry or sensual or irreverent or anything else.

Especially in a poem. Some poems are dripping with four letter words, and that’s good–if the words, and the frequency of their appearance, serve a purpose toward the voice and the emotional impact of of the poem. Look at Ai, or Sharon Olds. When they use certain words, it’s far from gratuitous. And if they make us uncomfortable, it’s because that discomfort has a part to play in the poem’s impact.

But I think some poems make the mistake of thinking that certain language will, in and of itself, make a poem gritty or raw or visceral. It won’t. It’s only a paint color. We still have to paint the picture.

On the other hand, there’s no need to recoil from any words if they are what’s feeling true. We need to treat them with the same consideration, and the same thoughtful editorial eye, needed by any words we’re using to refine a poem.

Let’s play with them the way we try to play with other words to sharpen our craft and pleasure. Play with their appearance, or their absence. We can try putting them in the mouth of a character one might peg as a more demure type, and use the surprise of them to make a tone shift or heighten a moment. I have a 25-line poem in which “fuck” appears only in the penultimate line, and it’s needed there. No other word would have worked, and it also wouldn’t have worked if it had appeared any earlier in the poem.

We can appreciate their qualities of sound. If I write “fuck” in a poem, it needs to work in terms of the poem’s sound and not just the meaning: the fricative f, the shortness and compactness of the word, and the primitive-sounding “uh” vowel should form part of a conscious arrangement.

I love words, and if you read this you probably do too. Let all words be piled around you like jewels, available for your loving and discerning hand.

Debunking the Poetry Myth

Here’s a cool synchronicity–the night after I post about the fun of the Bad Titles exercise, my 14-year-old brings home a very similar homework assignment fro her creative writing class. They were given a list of nonsensical headlines and told to pick one and write a poem based on it.

It’s her first poetry assignment as a teenager, and while she knows I write poetry I’m aware that I can’t foist my love of it onto her. Like many, she still labors under the delusion that writing poetry has to be hard, and she hasn’t discovered the magic of free verse either.

People think writing poetry is for academics, or for emo goth types, or for the suicidal, or for old-fashioned types who drink brandy from snifters. And so they don’t experiment with writing poetry, and they never discover gifts they might have. It’s true that not everyone will encounter a deep passion for poetry, but there are thousands who will never know.

The word poetry comes from the Greek poesis, which simply means making. A poet, like other creative people, is simply a maker. “Just make something,” I want to tell my daughter. Just let some words flow, and arrange them in some new way, and see that you just made a new thing. It wasn’t there before, and now it exists. Congratulations, you’re a poet.

I Love My Squid

I’m coming out of a serious depressive/awful self-care phase, and my creativity was drained during it. Drained is the wrong word–it’s more like being covered with a gigantic, turd-like pile of cement that never gets completely set but surrounds you and chokes you into immobility. Also, the cement really smells.

I’m grateful to be coming out of it, and am trying to coax my creativity and sense of pleasure out of the woodwork by looking at some of my old scribbled notes. One page brought a smile to my face: I’d been playing with a poetry exercise cited in a book (whose title I unfortunately can’t remember.) The exercise was called “Bad Titles” and was meant to lower inhibitions about beginning a poem.

Every student has five minutes to write a list of 20 terrible poem titles. They can be terrible because they seem nonsensical, or really boring, or distasteful–anything goes. Then they pick two favorites, toss them into a bag, and the titles are mixed and randomly assigned to class members for a writing period.

Some of mine included:

High Protein Wedding
The Apple That Time Forgot
What I Saw in the Shower This Morning
The Letter W

and the two I selected as my favorites, Long Walks on the Peach and I Love My Squid. I wasn’t in a group, so I couldn’t be assigned someone else’s bad titles. But I took those two and wrote something. The first one actually turned into a keeper, and I ended up with a silly but fun rough draft for the second.

I hope to be creating again soon. I have three stage-1 ideas incubating right now, and if I can abstain from self-sabotage they will develop and give me pleasure. And you know what? Make that four, because I just got an idea for The Apple That Time Forgot!

Like It Rough?

I’ve been thinking about the term “rough draft” lately, because I banged out three rough poems in the last couple of days. Not from scratch; each came from notes that had been sitting around in my folder for weeks or months. I was going to see someone special today, and I like to share poem drafts with him, so I went ahead. The results were like the Three Bears, in my opinion–one I like a lot, one’s pretty okay and one still feels stilted.

Rough: what do I think about when I hear that word? I try to embrace the fact that all poems will be rough when I first pronounce them arrived, but what does that mean?

Rough, the word itself, makes me think of harsh, uneven terrain. Rough makes me think of aggressive, physical sport or play. Rough makes me think of angry sex and grimy leather and grit.

A poem, a statue, a life can’t ever become polished if it isn’t willing to be rough.

Taking those inky scrawled notes and turning them into a draft; turning them into one of the infinite possible drafts that could have emerged from the same notes, feels like an act of supreme brashness. And it is. It’s bravado and chutzpah and in-your-face.

Revision is a time for humility. A rough cut is not. Even though I make a lot of changes in the process of creating a draft, overthinking will drain the juice out of it. Time, later, to devise changes that will improve without eviscerating.


So there I am, sitting sedately in a support group meeting, attentive to the speaker, and my mind wanders just a bit…and suddenly, I get this grin on my face. I’m not sure what it looked like to an observer, but my guess is that it was something between a cat spying a bird and someone conceiving a particularly naughty fantasy.  It was the grin that comes with the gotcha.

Stephen King’s protagonist in the novel Misery, who is a writer, talks about the gotta–a sublime moment when a story catches hold. He describes it viscerally: “—but I gotta see how this ends.” I gotta know will she live. I gotta know will he catch the shitheel who killed his father. I gotta know if she finds out her best friend’s screwing her husband. The gotta. Nasty as a hand-job in a sleazy bar, fine as a fuck from the world’s most talented call-girl.

Love it. But right now my equivalent is the gotcha. That moment when my brain nails down a key line, a frame, a voice for a new poem. What will the poem look like? Don’t know yet, but it exists now. The fact that it hasn’t actually been written; well, that’s important, but the gotcha is like the Big Bang. I can play around with words, and the result might be pretty or even have some merit, but without that pulse of energy it’s not mine.

At the first possible moment I slipped out of the room, acting as if I’d just noticed a silent buzz on my phone (which, suppose, I had, if one allows a metaphorical buzz on a metaphorical phone) and found a quiet spot. Frantically, I entered the words into my phone in stream-of-consciousness fashion.  Then I went on with my day. But traces of a secret smile lingered at the corners of my mouth: I know something you don’t know. 

O Brave New World?

One of the next steps on my neophyte poet’s journey involves meeting some actual poets. I live about 45 minutes from Berkeley and 90 minutes from San Francisco, so there are events I can attend. I’ve been reading and researching, while trying not to let myself get overwhelmed.

There are several kinds of poetry events, and I feel as if I would belong more at some than at others. But that’s just assumptions on my part at this stage–until I check something out for real, I shouldn’t talk myself out of anything. It’s just my insecurity that pictures me surrounded by edgy urban twentysomethings who will cast me out for not being politically relevant enough.

Learning about events and readings also fuels my insecurity by showing me how many poets are out there; names upon names that are unfamiliar to me. Do I have the mental capacity to care for my family and live with my issues while also learning a whole new culture and taking in the work of hundreds of new poets?

As I’ve been doing, I broke it down into small, specific and attainable. I found a coffeehouse in Berkeley that has a reading and open mic every Monday night, and I’m planning to go. If I don’t like it, I’ll remember that there are many flavors of events out there.

Ultimately, I need to find a way to connect with fellow writers in a way that works. It’s so easy for me to get the impression that the only way to become a published poet is to dump the rest of your life and do full-time networking. Hell, nowadays it’s easy to get the impression that to succeed at anything one has to become an expert networker and social media mogul.

I can’t let that idea stop me from writing. It’s true that my mental health issues make it challenging for me to be consistently extroverted. It’s true that, while my blogging is helping me make progress on the social media thing, I have a lot to learn about self-promotion. It’s true that my family needs a great deal of my time right now. But I have to believe–I have to–that if I write poetry that speaks well enough, it’s worth doing.

Meter in the Bathroom

Ah, reading poetry…truly it seems as if the very phrase evokes an image of leather chairs, delicate teacups and classical music playing in the background. Or perhaps a bohemian-looking cafe, rich and dark with philosophy and angst. One way or the other, there’s a feeling that reading poetry is somehow a more serious and elevated activity than reading other things.

I’m not immune to this canalization, which is why I feel so sheepish about the amount of poetry I read in the bathroom. At this moment, the bathroom contains the collected works of Eliot and Yeats, a thick Penguin anthology, and two recent issues of Poetry magazine. I admit it–sometimes the bathroom is the only place I read any poetry during the day. It seems somehow disrespectful.

But is it? Naturally, it’s better to read it there than not at all. And why should there be any requirement for where, or how, we allow poetry to speak to us? Elevating and intellectualizing it too much may dissuade the neophyte from trying it out. Perhaps it’s not bad to enjoy it in such a mundane, casual way. Not all the time, of course, but kind of like the balance between the “quickie” and the longer lovemaking sessions in a sexual relationship.

All right, then, I’ll try to get over my sheepishness. When I grab a book or a magazine in that most humble of libraries, I’ll just imagine it as a hurried tryst. “Missed you too, babe, but I’ve only got a minute.” It’s still a good minute.

The Word Resound

#108 on my List of Things I Know Are Wonderful To Do And Wish I Did More Often: reading poetry out loud. Not to an audience, or even to a friend, but to myself and an empty room. Reading a poem out loud causes me to interact with it differently–I adore the way a poem that works looks on the page, and would not want to give that up. But saying it out loud does things for me.

Saying the words slows me down, for one thing…I’m a fast reader and tend to zip my eyes over something and take it in almost as a gestalt; this isn’t good when a poem has so many juicy words and phrases that can be individually savored.

But it’s more than that: reading a poem audibly creates a sense of ritual. I am invoking something with the vibrations of my voice, something that is a blend of the poet’s energy and my own. The other morning I read one of my favorite works, T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday. I had never read it out loud before, and I found the parts that had moved me before to have a new poignancy and a new feeling of identification.

I go through phases of disorientation related to my mental health issues, and I’ve found that reading out loud steadies me. When I read something meaningful, I am sending a message out from a more centered and less frightened part of myself. It makes sense from a neurological point of view, but also from a spiritual one: it’s like reciting a prayer.

Try it, if you haven’t. But you have to be completely alone, so that you don’t fool yourself into thinking the message is meant for anyone but you. And no murmuring: say it loud and clear! It’s an important message, after all.

I’ve Got a Little List

I’ve read that part of working toward a goal is the art of breaking it into tiny, doable steps. Some people make “vision boards” on which they portray steps toward their goal like little islands in an archipelago. When it comes to my desire to publish poems, I’m trying to follow this advice, because I will become completely overwhelmed if I don’t.

The other day, I decided to create a tiny task for myself. So I got out my recently acquired copy of Poet’s Market and went through the publications list with a highlighter, marking every publication whose needs might match what I have to offer. I wanted to generate a list of publications to explore further–visit their websites; think about ordering sample copies, etc. Since my budget is extremely limited, I have to do a lot of winnowing when it comes to ordering things.

The list was getting pretty long, so as a way of culling it I decided to (at least temporarily) screen out those publications generated by the writing department of a university, except those in the Bay area.

As I often do, I simultaneously pampered my tactile self by making the list on my creamy linen paper with my favorite smooth-flowing ink pen. When I finished the list, I punched holes in it and put it into a new binder instead of leaving it where it could get mixed up with things and lost. There it sits, in lonely splendor, waiting for me to do something with it.

One small task. One trivial activity that took me away from my daily concerns and re-centered me in my creative dreams. A short break from worrying and trying to cope with mental health, recovery, parenting, money, weight, and whatever else I’m trying to keep afloat about. I’ll take it.

Too Late?

When I get excited about poetry–writing it, revising it, thinking about sharing it with others–the peanut gallery in my head gets loud. I hear all of the usual stuff from it about how many other writers are out there, how big the world is, or how crazy I am to think people would ever want to read anything I write when there are so many amazing poets to explore. I hear all of the usual self-destructive monologues from my addiction, trying to convince me that this, like everything else, is futile and wouldn’t I rather have a nice handful of pills instead.

When those don’t work–when my creativity is flowing too well, or my self-care is too good that week–the peanut gallery brings out its ammunition of last resort. That ammunition is my age.

When I read books by poets about writing/being a poet, they often speak of a process that started when they were quite young. By the time they are in their late forties, like me, they have been writing for twenty years or more. They have published books. They have degrees. They’re teaching. They’ve spent decades discovering and refining their voice.

What place is there for a poet who did not discover herself to be a poet until later in life?

It was always there; I know that now. But for decades I repressed my creativity so ruthlessly that it could not get out. Instead of writing words, I ate them, and my eating disorder ruled my life. When that was no longer enough, I added drugs to the mix. Now in recovery, and learning ways to manage my bipolar disorder that leave my creativity more intact, I have witnessed the rather slimy birth of a poet who appears to be me.

So, that’s what it is; I am a middle-aged novice poet. Is it too late? I know that all the training and classes in the world are no substitute for having something to say, and I believe I have something to say. But I also know there’s no substitute for experience, patient practice of a craft and learning from one’s mistakes. Is “catching up” possible?

I find myself doing math in my head; calculating around the age and cause of various relatives’ death to estimate how many years I might have left to write. I know it’s silly, and I know none of us know how much time we have left. But that’s what goes on for me.

I don’t understand what it is about poetry for me; I don’t understand what is driving me to become the adult in the kindergarten class of a strange school. I guess I don’t need to understand. I just need to take good care of myself and maximize the years I do have. If I can shout down that peanut gallery regularly, my desire to have a body of work can be a powerful force for resisting self-destructive impulses when they come.

Reeling It In

Now that feels better. After a week of incubating a certain key line that wanted to be a hook for my latest poem, it finally progressed and took shape into a revisable draft. I know a week’s not much for poets that are skilled in long-term creative process, but it felt like a long time while that key line was annoying the hell out of me. Six little words. Not even long words. Six words that I knew would tie up the poem when it came together; that encompassed the message of the poem for me. There wasn’t even a title yet, and the drifting fragments of other lines came and went without that punch of conviction.

Why did I persevere on this one? Poets who share thoughts on revision advise that some “great lines” be tossed into a bank and left for later revisiting if there isn’t a coherent flow appearing around them. I hope I would have had enough humility to do that with my six-word mascot if things kept not working. But something in me wasn’t ready to let it go. The line wasn’t alone; it had an image around it; it was the image, and I wanted to see it.

Today, when I planned to spend time writing, I knew I wanted it. I also knew that it can’t be forced. But I confess that while I was saying my dual-diagnosis prayers (hey, you, whatever you are, please continue giving me the strength not to take drugs or harm myself in another way today) I threw in a request. Something like “and if you’re feeling generous and whimsical, it would really lift my spirits to birth that draft.”

Coincidence, or testament to the power of asking? Don’t really care–I’ll take it.



I admit it: I love words. Not with an elevated, academic love, but with a selfish, fetishistic, pleasure-seeking drive. I want to collect them, fawn over them and rub my face in them.


I’ve been known to censor my vocabulary a bit, depending on where and with whom I am. I’m afraid of being seen as snobbish, or full of myself, or an out-of-touch egghead. Or I’m afraid of making others feel bad in some way.


Or, as has happened more than once, I’ll be accused of “intellectualizing” when I’m supposed to be accessing my more primitive feelings. Sometimes it’s true–but sometimes, I’m frustrated that they won’t believe I can be feeling something genuine and express that in passionate and articulate language because it’s what works for me.


There are times for me to craft my choice of words and consider whether they are reaching people clearly, but I think I do it too much. I need to let go of that fear, and come out as the word geek I am.


Some eras of poetic history were very heavy on what we, today, would consider big or obscure words. I like them. I like old, archaic, plush words. I own a beat-up Thesaurus that was published in the 1930s, and it is one of my favorite books–you would not believe some of the stuff in there, and how many of the words are almost gone now.


My poetry isn’t as full of ten-dollar words as some of the old greats. I’m a product of my time and I tend to want my poems to tell a story of some kind to all readers, including people who don’t generally read poetry.


But still…I love words. It’s probably why I enjoy reading Hillman or Jung when my mind is up to it, because I’m guaranteed to encounter words I don’t know. I love the old poets who write in lush, sprawling vocabularies acquired in a type of liberal arts education common to certain groups in bygone eras.


So here’s to owning my fetish! Who’s with me? Do you have a favorite obscure word today?

Stages and Stanzas

When I began to write poems again, my process seemed to follow certain stages. The sequence could be fast or slow, but it was predictable, and I found it both frustrating and enjoyable.

Stage 1 is the itch, the feeling of unease and discontent I get when I haven’t written a poem in a while.
Stage 2 is the idea; the desire to write a poem about a certain thing (this can precede the first stage if it’s a fertile time.)
Stage 3 is stream-of-consciousness, almost prose, just scribbling down the images or thoughts as fast as I can write.
Stage 4 is the hook. That’s the moment when at least the first draft kind of takes shape–what kind of voice, a binding metaphor, or one key line that gives me the shivers.
Stage 5 is revision, which I enjoy doing on paper with a great deal of energetic crossing out. Although I haven’t had a lot of formal training, I seem to do a lot of what poetry books advise: check for cliches, experiment with different voices, try going in different directions from certain points, trim off extraneous words or parts (it’s interesting how often I find the entire last stanza of a poem is unnecessary!)
Stage 6 is the moment when I call it a completed draft, and I begin the process of falling in love. Not that it could never be revised again, but this version of it exists and I have a relationship with it.

Between stage 1 and stage 6, I feel pregnant. I’m aware of having something in process, and I’m looking forward to the time when it will be done and out of me. It was a linear sequence, when I began to write again, because it was one poem at a time. But things have speeded up inside my head, and I have more appreciation for revision as a longer process…so I must learn to incubate many poems in progress.

Yesterday I did some stage 3 scribbling about an idea; a real event from my childhood popped into my mind and I began to write details down. Colors, textures, the scent of snow and the alien thoughts of a six-year-old, on their way to creating something that is not a poem about a child at all…and that’s it. It’s not ready to go any further, so it’s incubating away. Coexisting with a stage 2 idea, a stage 4 mess with words but no clear hook, and a stage 1 itchiness that wants to PUSH one of them out.

This is where I need to learn from more experienced poets. I need to learn how to be content with five, ten, a hundred unfinished things in my head; perhaps to thrive on the state and see it as the desirable one.

Ink Vanity

So, I just came back from one of my outings to Peet’s Coffee–like many of us, I sometimes find it easier to get something done with other people around. While I was there, I noticed that out of eight people working on something, I was the only one using just pen and paper. Everyone else had laptops. There’s nothing surprising about this–what I really noticed, and feel sheepish about, is that I was kind of getting off on the fact that I was the different one.

Oooh, look at me, I’m quirky, I’m artistic. Look at me marching away to my different drummer over here. Gaze in befuddled admiration at the splotch of ink on my fingertip. 

Really, Lori, get over yourself. You were listening to your iPod headphones the whole time, and most of your prose is done on a keyboard. It’s only poetry brainstorming and some therapeutic journaling that gets the pen and paper treatment.

I suppose I get creative about fuel for my vanity’s fire, especially in this stage of my life. Today, the guy next to me in Peet’s tapping away on his laptop probably has a JOB he’s working on, after all, one that might even pay him MONEY…and it’s hard on my ego that I don’t, so I try to tell myself that I am special in some way to make up for it.

And maybe I am special. But not because of some cream-colored paper and a $1.99 rollerball pen.


Dear readers, just a quick note to explain some of the changes happening here on my site. My naive self has recently learned that sharing a poem draft in any public medium, even a blog, makes it unacceptable to a large percentage of the publications that publish poetry. Only private sites or circles are allowed. Therefore, for completely selfish reasons, I am ceasing to put up drafts of anything I am considering submitting. I’ll primarily post my thoughts about what’s happening with my poetry, thoughts about writing and thoughts about the role poetry plays in our lives.

I admit it–I want to submit poems. Why? Don’t know. I just want to. I don’t have any expectations about what will happen, and I am ready to purchase nice frames for my favorite rejection letters.

To my small, lovely pool of followers: I know it’s not what you signed up for, and I apologize. Do unfollow if you wish; my feelings won’t be bruised. On the bright side, I will probably post shorter things more often.

Poet Mode

(Originally posted on my other site, Not This Song.)

Bad Poet still makes me smile when I read it. More than that, the feelings behind it have really marked a change in my relationship to writing poetry. I’ve written several more serious poems since then, and not worried much about good or bad. They please me, and that’s enough.

What I didn’t expect is that writing poems is really different from writing prose. Now that I am doing it, I seem to have unlocked a need to do it. When I go a while without creating one, things just feel wrong. Often, I’m not consciously aware of the feeling until the next poem happens and I feel relief. It’s kind of like when you haven’t masturbated for a while–you get started and your body informs you that hey, this isn’t going to take long and by the way, where have you been?

Writing prose can have these qualities, of course, and I’m hardly the first writer to compare writing to masturbation. Heinlein said it best in the words of Lazarus Long: “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of–just do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” The connotation being that writing is personal, self-involved, and potentially not something anyone else cares to see.

After meditating on what’s special about writing in “poet mode” for me, I’ve concluded the following: Poet mode turns down the dial on my intellect and lets more of my emotions through. Poet mode allows me to write things without trying to explain them too much. Poet mode pleases the artist in me because I get to play with lines and structure. But for me, the most powerful thing about writing poetry is that poetry feels useless.

Now, you know I don’t mean that. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without poetry, and I agree with the poet Hafiz, who said “religions are the ships; poets the lifeboats.” What I mean by saying that poetry feels useless is that I can’t weasel my way into thinking that I am writing a poem to serve any immediate, practical purpose. With prose I can do that: I needed to do that in order to start Not This Song. As personal as some of the stories get, I convince myself that they are helping someone.

I’m not saying that a poem I write won’t ever inspire anyone or help anyone feel less alone. I see that there’s no real reason to assume my poetry is any more useless than my prose. I see that my psyche isn’t making a logical distinction here, but it exists. Perhaps it’s because of the emotions vs. the intellect; I’ve spent a good part of my life thinking that my only, or main, value lay in being smart.

I think this illogical feeling about uselessness or impracticality is part of what makes writing a poem so satisfying for me. You see, every word I write is already a rebellion against the critical, shaming voices trying to convince me not to write. Writing a poem is a sharper rebellion, a rebellion more overt because it’s not trying to explain or justify itself. If I dig deep, I see that part of my satisfaction of finishing a poem comes from the gleeful relief of being able to yell “Fuck you” at that inner judge (and all those who taught it to be that way.)

You see this? I wrote this. Why? Because I fucking felt like it, that’s why. No, nobody’s paying for it. Do people think it’s good? I have no idea. What am I going to do with it? None of your damn business. Don’t like it? Nobody asked you. Fuck off.

Don’t flee in terror, poetry community–I promise I would never speak to an external, human critic that way. This is only about my internal process, and once a draft of a poem exists I have no problem with constructive criticism. I hope to learn more about polishing and revising my work, and I find myself salivating at descriptions of poetry classes and workshops. I’m making an effort to read more new, modern poetry and not just my old favorites. Whatever continues to come out of this poetic Pandora’s box, I hope to keep the spirit of Bad Poet firmly in mind. Permission to be a neophyte, to be imperfect. Having the humor–and the humility–to see and accept the immature but endearing antics of my developing self.

Bad Poet

I want to be a bad poet.
I want good poets to shake their heads indulgently at the rawness,
the lack of craft,
the lack of depth
in my work.

I want to be a drama queen with words and images;
smile sheepishly
when I read a poem a week later.
I want to publish things impulsively
like this.

I want to sit in cafes feeling sensual with artsy paper
getting ink on my fingers
while I scrawl the “perfect” phrase
and oh,
I want that phrase to be so, so imperfect.

What glorious liberation, to be a bad poet!
What freedom to shout, what license to play!
What security to know I am bad,
and never waste

one more moment

fearing that I might be.