Jeannine Atkins's Blog
October 22, 2014
Last night I heard Alison Hawthorne Deming read at an event hosted by the wonderful Smith College Poetry Center. I’d read some of her poems and one of her four books of nonfiction: Writing the Sacred into the Real is a lot about the land’s beauty and fragility, and I was particularly moved by her evocation of life along the shore. While not a memoir, and more about place than particular people, she references her ancestor Nathaniel Hawthorne, becoming pregnant as a teenager and the fractures that made in her family, and the bond with her mother forged decades later.
Last night, standing under the Periodic Table of the Elements, which she said made her happy, Alison Hawthorne Deming read a little from each of her poetry books, including the manuscript she’s currently working on, with some especially poignant poems about her brother and cancer. She began with retellings or “re-entering the stories” of Eve and Persephone. Other poems explore relationships between art and science – two areas she says need each other, for neither alone can save the earth. She spoke of the genesis of “Rope,” the title poem of her most recent collection. She said she’d often walked along the rocky shore of the northern Atlantic and seen her father, son-in-law, and the man she was involved with picking up bits of rope they found washed up. “So of course when you have no idea what’s going on, you write a poem.”
She read from her latest book, Genius Loci, though not the long title poem that investigates layers of history in Prague, where, she writes in her notes, she first heard this Latin phrase and preferred it to “spirit of place” for its “echo of the pagan meaning of the word genius –the guardian spirit assigned at birth to a person, place, or institution.” She discusses being drawn to long poems in an interview with Terrain, saying these speak for our inner need for continuity, and “I like to use research to enlarge the poem.”
The themes of her prose and poetry blend, and sometimes one form slides into the other. In Rope, “Works and Days” is 45 numbered paragraphs with fascinating observations about frogs, Darwin, Merce Cunningham, mirror neurons, and other subjects. It begins with a quote from Mitchell Thomashow: “If the daily news is literally a substitute for morning prayers, then your reading of the day should reflect on questions of meaning and value.” More poems were inspired by and dedicated to friends who share her concerns, or about animals, the topic of her latest prose work, Zoologies: Animals and the Human Spirit. All of her work seems to rise from an effort to find beauty in a dangerous and endangered world, and weaves together truth and hope.
October 14, 2014
I’ve been walking around with the sense that it isn’t summer anymore. Yes, July gave us good sunny days, but clutching those memories can make me miss fall’s beauty. I can gripe too much about a soggy day and forget to take a walk when the rain stops.
Most words are as surprising, imperfect, and glorious as October weather. I can get bothered by all the not-quite-right words and forget that if words were perfect, they’d all have been chosen already, lined up in perfect poems or glass cases. Words never quite fit ideas, but are meant to be kicked around the way a child strides, shuffles, and stamps through fallen leaves, pleased by the sounds and scatter that no one can hold, so must crackle and whoosh again. Writing means near constant kicking of language, paying attention to pauses and the ways sounds meet. All the wrong words give us something to hear and direct our next steps.
Every word is inexact, with some holding metaphors meant to stretch or shrink. We can relax if we remember we’re never going to get a perfect match of thought and word. What engages us is the striving, and that’s what we hope will matter to readers, too. They might feel the reach to something they can’t quite catch, but feel changed by the stretching. We’re doing good as long as we pay attention, don’t drift too far back to summer or brace ourselves for winter. And feel grateful, which is more than a thank you nod, closer to belting out a song. In a recent Washington Post interview, Billy Collins says, “With poetry, you don’t have to go through a windshield to realize that life is precious.” I’m trying to take in the yellow bounty in the branches, thinking of a friend who told me about her mother in Hospice who was recently wheeled with her oxygen tank into a garden. Knowing it might be her last time among the trees, she spent eight hours looking, listening, smelling, and appreciating. Every stalk of milkweed or bramble of late roses might not have seemed like much at first, but as with the words we let stick around, beauty was revealed.
October 10, 2014
Yesterday I was on the phone talking with my friend Melodye about a rare and happy intersection of creativity and commerce, when a great bird dropped from the sky onto our lawn in Maine. I interrupted, “Do you mind if I grab my camera? Peter will want to see this.” She graciously agreed, while I rummaged through my bag. The heron waited, too. I got my shot, but felt my heart expand more as it spread those crazy wings and swept from my frame, turning from a prehistoric-looking creature into something that fit perfectly into the sky. Something my photos cannot capture.
That feeling of can-I-ever-get-what-I-envision is always with me when I write. There’s that glimpse of grace, then the much longer scrambling attempts to hold it, or at least the tip of a wing or foot. There’s the failure. The trick is not to get bogged down there, but to remember the first feeling of connection with something fine, though that may not ever match the image. I was disappointed with my heron photo, but emailed it to my husband as a journal-like bit of my day, knowing he’d fill in the feeling. He sent it back to me having done some enlarging and tweaking; the bird did look more impressive, but still looks so much cooler flying or in water than on the ground. Or does it? Can I stay with that picture and find more beauty than is first apparent? That’s the challenge with writing, too. If we keep on looking for words that may not match our first vision, and maybe look deeper, can we find something more wonderful even than what we first imagined?
Every moment of writing may be one of juggling a sense of inadequacy and hope. Robert Frost wrote, “In each line, in each phrase the possibility of failure is concealed. The possibility that the whole poem, not just the isolated verse, will fail. That’s how life is: at every moment, we can lose it.” Oh, Mr. Frost, yes. We reach and miss and when we’re lucky, we grasp something new. Which is a reason to keep on.
For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit The Miss Rumphius Effect, where Tricia is also celebrating Robert Frost.
October 7, 2014
Yesterday I looked up from my laptop to see a V-shaped flock heading south, which broke the resistance, despite yellows and golds, I’ve been holding for fall. If geese can accept the changing seasons, so can I. And I admired their sense of order, their all-about-the-south direction, as I’ve been shuffling and making rows of index cards, thinking of ways various scenes of my can move forward. My work-in-progress has three main problems. Now I’m trying to line up what happens to make each strand move along and wind toward a climax, though alert observers of my photo can see I added a fourth row of subplot, and I’m considering a fifth. I’m mulling over what questions each scene poses and where it will fit best.
Building a structure that can be taken apart and rebuilt, like Tinker Toys, as its problems become apparent, is telling me, kindly, what to do. It’s like a dance. If one step is taken here, another must be taken there. As actions on my pink cards grow, the gaps in the green cards remind me to make something happen in that area. And as an event is recorded on a green card, I can see how that effects what happens on the yellow. Of course it’s not about making pretty rows of colored cards, but building a story. Plot reminds us that beyond the energy of each word, there’s a power in pattern. But I need sentences as well as cards. So while I consider order, I break to compose small things made of subjects and verbs. Chapters thicken.
I’m dreaming up some scary things – not creepy, beyond the pale, but dialogue or actions that disturb the status quo. I’m on a quest for arguments that mess up passing-the-time conversations, friendships that shatter or spoil. Which doesn’t always make me happy. The fear of plotting is also the fear of looking under the pretty rocks. It puts me in a bit of an anxious mood, but that’s some of what we want from plot. Not the garden, but the holes readers might trip in, and have to keep watch for, and discover their shoes are muddy.
I’ve never written a novel like this, but have instead dreamed up and gathered scenes and dialogue, usually relying on the given chronology of history for an order. We’ll see how it goes. Or should I make myself a card, and write: “You’ve reached the end. Congratulations!” Maybe I’ll smile as I return to “Go.”
September 30, 2014
“Walking is often the encountering of the world of things, not only ‘out there,’ but for some odd reason ‘in here,’ as each step releases examples and thingamajigs – apples and wheelbarrows, plots and transitions … Altogether thinking with things is so much richer than without them.” – Transfer of Qualities by Martha Ronk
My daily trips around the neighborhood are usually inspired by my dog, who lies patiently until I head near the door, then scrambles up, all panting and glee. “Walk! Walk! Walk!” I follow, as Martha Ronk suggests, thinking about apples and plots, while my companion sniffs bushes, or lifts his nose to any canine or human passerby who seems to admire him.
In her collection of poems and some elegant prose, Martha Ronk explores the sense of life we may find in things we call inanimate. As children, we read poems about flowers that sing and trees that dance; many of us believed that toys came alive at night. We’re eventually taught to drop this notion, and call it pretending or personification, leaving talking stars to poetry, which we’re told not to trust too much. But some of us quietly read not just words, but things, and expressions, and things we find along our way. The world is full of clues about its, or should we say her or his, meaning. Birds, frogs, snails, or rocks can hint at good ways to be. Things turn into something else, just as early in the month, flowers bloomed on milkweed, which is now yellow with pods that will soon burst to release silky puffs that many children see as beds for elves. Why not?
Metaphors often begin by finding some meaning hidden in the tangible, then pointing out a link between something small and seen and something grand and invisible. They’re reminders of how two different things may meet and both change, like people whose happiness grows bigger as they turn to friends. Sometimes we use “as” or “like” to forge the link, like a button. These similes may feel snug, while metaphors give us more of a spin.
A leaf or plant doesn’t mean just one thing, but bristles with all aspects of maybe. The world, like a sentence, isn’t a puzzle. Still, who believes that the world is something we’re supposed to entirely understand? We’re lucky to live where magic and science mingle, like asters, goldenrod, and milkweed. And if science and magic aren’t always crazy about each other, surely they at least get along.
September 26, 2014
My husband has been enjoying taking pottery classes with Tiffany Hilton, and I recently visited her studio for an open house to watch them spin clay into something useful and beautiful. I admired many cups, teapots, plates, and bowls on Tiffany’s shelves, like those in the photo below, but she humbly said, “I always see some little thing that I could have done differently that makes me want to make the next piece.”
Beauty is like that. It can almost always be different. We have to learn to see both what’s graceful in our work, and the way it could take another shape. We can learn to see the gap between what is and what could be and not be bothered by our choice, but move forward. Experiment some more.
In the introduction to Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, Kim Stafford quotes his father as saying, “I would trade everything I have ever written for the next thing.” William Stafford wrote every day before dawn and published fifty books in his lifetime. In “You Reading This, Be Ready,” he wrote: “What can anyone give you greater than now, /starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?” His poems are beloved for what he saw, which might be so common that people can and did say, “I could write that.” And he encouraged everyone to write what they saw, too, which might always be changing. So we keep going, trying and beautifully failing to get it right.
And here’s Peter’s work from the evening: twelve bowls to be glazed, fired, then filled with soup to benefit the Amherst Survival Center.
For more Poetry Friday posts, please visit Laura Purdie Salas, at Writing the World for Kids.
September 23, 2014
I’m not entirely ready to say good-bye to summer, but the calendar turned, my yoga teacher said that the planets did something or other at about 10:29 last night, challah is being savored in some homes, and my socks and fingerless gloves are out. The apples are crisp and roadsides colorful with purple asters and pumpkins lolling in fields or lined up at farm stands. I’ve spent much of late summer tending to small things. I researched (i.e. read with a quick page-flipping beat) a lot for a short picture book set in ancient China. I researched-read more for a still-smaller poem. I pulled together an essay about history I started a year or two ago. I steeled myself and wrote queries about manuscripts sitting too long. I gasped at an editorial email I received without a “but” in the praise, and now I’m waiting for a phone date to discuss this, while busy with semi-denial and don’t-jinx-this thoughts, though trying, as always, to keep hope in a steady place.
Now it’s time to go back to my novel, where I spent warm days circling back and through five chapters. The weave of those chapters has gotten sturdier. I know the setting, the characters, the problem and a bunch of other stray things, and I do mean stray. As I opened my folder again, I sighed, in that good way, as if I were about to pull up warm covers. Or walking into the Jones Library with plenty of money in the meter. Then I started to think about all the other things I could do. Never mind errands, but I did have an idea for another essay, which shouldn’t take me a year. And I have another picture book that needs just a bit of work. Where was the resistance to a novel whose characters I like coming from?
Some stalling comes when stepping back into a big project. And really, who likes transitions? Even heading somewhere great, we may feel we’re leaving a comfortable place. Just the thought of change can leave me feeling tired. Even the idea of pleasure can get in the way. Some of us don’t wear a favorite sweater because we don’t want to spill something on it. We may not open the pricey ice cream because that means it will soon be gone. We put off calling friends, or don’t see an enticing movie because of the small effort to pick up the phone or get in a car. We miss enjoying fall because our mind turns to March ice.
This is age, laziness, fear, and sticking with habits. I have to turn my manuscript back to habit. Sometimes it’s good to take it slow, but while I often choose a gentle pace, in this case I’m all for the just jumping into the water. Whip open that notebook. Getting in slowly gives me too much time for nagging fears and a sense of worthlessness to rise, and honestly who needs those? Moving straight into a project, otherwise known as the big unknown, can be one reason why people like classes or workshops with prompts, when the instructor gives a few words and perhaps sets a stopwatch or alarm clock. You can burst past the pesky quibbles and rush into something that might or might not be great, but will be something. Yay for something over nothing. Give yourself a cheer.
I’m not quite able to set an alarm on my desk and murmur ready-set-go, but I do have my tricks. One part of me has to give the other a push, which I do by asking myself to organize those stray things. Putting them in folders develops some new ideas. The clutter grows, but that’s what is supposed to happen now. Lines sweep out in every direction, there for me to pluck and trim, and I find myself immersed again. Lo and behold, peeking from under a new sentence, there’s my excitement or her dowdier but important sister, commitment. My work again becomes the warm blanket, the stroll into the library where I’ll see shiny new books and old friends. I’ll take my tea hot now with spices. And admire the Monarch butterflies stopping on asters as they fly south.
September 20, 2014
I found a bit of poetry in the basement of my in-laws’ old house, which I helped clean a bit this morning: literally, an anthology my sister-in-law set aside for me, and figuratively, in the sawdust of a beloved workbench, with remnants of toys and decorations my father-in-law made for children and grandchildren. But the air outside was warm and clear, and around noon, I dusted myself off and drove past fields of pumpkins and sunflowers to the Amherst Poetry Festival. Rubber ducks with bits of Emily Dickinson poems floated in a fountain by a park where you could look at journals and books published by local small and university presses.
I bought a copy of The Common, but said no thanks to the quite spectacular cupcake I was offered. I passed by a tent where I might have gotten a Tarot reading with Emily Dickinson themed cards, and said hello to Karen Skolfield , author of frost in the low areas, one of the most riveting new collections I’ve read in a while. She was running a tent where children wrote poems based on pictures of paintings or put together their own small books: hamsters and dinosaurs seemed to be a popular theme.
Outside the Emily Dickinson homestead, I heard Martin Espada read. Then I went into the parlor to listen in on a bit of the Poetry Marathon, when volunteers spend part of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday reading all 1789 of Emily Dickinson’s poems. I knew my friend Burleigh Muten, author of Miss Emily, had read the day before, so I was surprised and happy to see her, though I’m sure at some point she must have left this house where she researched, found inspiration, and sometimes teaches children to write poetry.
Burleigh smiled, handed me a thick paperback collection, pointed out the number they were on — 829, I think — then took her place back in the circle of folding chairs. It felt rather church-like with the open books on laps, sometimes with fingers gently marking places, and a mission to keep poetry in the parlor’s air. All those different voices speaking Dickinson words, some with their quirky capitalizations. All those dashes. With poems following poems, I couldn’t comprehend much, but the reverence was good to behold.
September 16, 2014
Of all the elements of writing a novel, I probably talk least about point of view, shoving it behind considerations of character, setting, and my long hunts for plot. On the surface it seems a simple choice of three: writing using “I,” or the seldom-used “you,” or taking the more distant view of third person, which then offers its own choices about how much the narrator knows. I know people who’ve revised whole novels by changing the point of view, which becomes much more than switching pronouns and tenses. We’re always wondering what slips by a character, why she notices what she does, and whose words to believe. How does point of view become part of the story, as we consider how much the teller is the tale?
Poems also offer lots of chances to play with point of view in terms of where the narrator stands or crouches or leaps. Part of poetry’s delight can be the way they make readers crawl below the earth or through clouds. When teaching poetry to children, I sometimes ask them to stand on rocks and reach, or bend down and look from between their legs, or drop to hands and knees and investigate.
I got to do my own similar exercises last night, when nature-loving Jody at Pure Yoga decided to hold our evening class on Mount Sugarloaf. We hiked from the bottom, but my husband drove up a bit later and took a few pictures. Sometimes my nose was nestled next to grass. Then we’d flip over, and feel tucked in by sky. Doing the warrior pose shortly before sundown, I saw our shadows cross. Below was the busy road and the slower river, the fields and more mountains offering one story. Another one was close to our mats. Who might tell a story starting close to the sky?
September 10, 2014
All kinds of things can keep us from writing. Our busy minds remind us that we have to do this or that. We’re too busy, too stressed, too rattled, too hungry, and never mind that our room is too chilly, messy, or noisy. We can blame any old thing, some with good reason, others with less justice.
The problem is that we can get into the habit of blame. So that when we sit down and words stick instead of flowing, we blame ourselves. Oh, those words come easy. We’re deluded, not smart enough, lazy, blocked, unimaginative. This list could compete in length with the list about reasons for not writing. But you get the point. Nonsense comes up.
I’m returning to a novel I began then put down to tend to some shorter works, and it wasn’t with eagerness that I reopened the file, but fear in all its disguises. I waded in, got used to the water. I fretted and frittered time along the way. But with the messy file opened, I stopped having much time for my mind, which can churn up excuses and blame with abandon. The story slowly started to make its little calls for attention. I wrote a sentence I liked and cheered up.
That’s what we have to do. Itch and sigh and maybe find a view of flowers, as a reminder of the need to be kind to ourselves. At some point we’ll get to one sentence that looks like it belongs in a book. Then, hour by hour, day by day, write a chapter around that.