What I learned in Wellfleet

July 13th, 2010

Wellfleet. I’m still trying to write about Wellfleet. About Wellfleet the town. About working with Marge Piercy. About the eleven other wonderful poets, amazing women all, who travelled the week with me. About what I learned; what I learned about poetry and what I learned about my life. 

It’s easier to write about the poetry, about the workshop experience. It was a juried workshop: we had to apply with an initial package of five poems (perhaps you remember my poem choosing angst?); the twelve of us who were ultimately selected then had to provide an additional ten poems prior to the workshop. We met for three hours each morning with each day devoted to a particular aspect of the craft: imagery, oral effects, titles, line length/line breaks, etc. In the afternoons we had assignments based on that morning’s work and we then workshopped these poems the following day. Each one of us had an individual conference with Marge, in the gazebo in her garden, during which she went over our fifteen poems in great detail and provided more general feedback. We capped off the week with a public reading in Wellfleet; Marge closed the reading with some new poems. There was a lot of work, but not too much, and Marge deliberately balanced the workload with us having an opportunity to explore and enjoy Wellfleet. (And may I say: I will be back with family in tow. Yes, you impressed me that much, Wellfleet.) It was a fantastic experience.

My instinct that I am good at this, that if I stick at this I will have some modest success, was confirmed by Marge, who gave me some very positive feedback. (She also suggested that I might want to consider abandoning altogether any further attempts at the villanelle; she’s nothing if not honest.) I have a good eye for the right detail and I’m generally good at titles but I could play with sound a lot more than I do. My use of the line break is generally on target, but when I fail, I fail spectacularly. I have a good instinct for revision. My best work speaks to my emotional truth; my weakest poems are those that I write because I think I should write about a certain thing or in a certain way. Much to my surprise, I have a pretty good reading presence. All in all, Marge’s message to me was: stick with this and you will be widely published. It was so rewarding to have my instincts confirmed. I do so much of my work and my attempts at growth and learning alone here in expat isolation; it is good to have those reminders that this is not a fool’s errand. 

Write. Just keep writing.

Clinging to life

April 10th, 2010

A few of the apple branches on the wood pile are starting to blossom. They do not yet know that they are dead.


March 2nd, 2010

I can always breathe in Arosa. After the car ride during which The Boychen refused to sleep even though we purposely left at his nap-time, after the last 40 minutes when Small Boy’s admirable patience finally deserted him and he began asking “How much longer?” every five minutes and then arguing with us over the reply, after the mad dash to the sport store for helmets and sleds five minutes before closing, after the unpacking, I can breathe. A person can breathe up there, can breathe in big lungfuls of snow and sky, can breathe in this:


Yes, a person can breathe up there.

What’s the difference between a bowl and a kidney dish?

December 7th, 2009

I once wrote a story in which one of my main characters, a 13-year-old girl, wakes in her hospital room after surgery to discover that she has broken her femur so violently in so many places that metal plates and screws have been inserted into the bone to help it knit together. On hearing this news, she begins to gag – she is about to throw up. My second main character, a 28-year-old doctor with a backstory, searches around for “a bowl” for her to throw up in. (He does not find one, and cups his hands for her to throw up into; the gesture is meant to reveal his character.)

I’m currently reading Water for Elephants, and I read this line last night: “I turn as vomit explodes from my mouth. Someone is there with a kidney dish, but I overshoot…” Do you see how precise that is – kidney dish? The reader instantly pictures the curved stainless steel dish used in a hospital. The reader has a solid image in her head. A bowl? What is that? Tupperware? Glass? Something from the cafeteria? That – that precision, that detail and care, that research to get it right, that sharpening of every word – that is the difference between stories that stay inside the computer and stories that make their way in the world.

What’s the difference between a bowl and a kidney dish? All the difference in the world.

The last morning of vacation

September 6th, 2009

From my journal, dated Saturday the fifth:

“Last night I tasted winter in the air, winter sneaking in over the mountains like a girl sneaking in past curfew on tip-tap toes. This morning there is snow on the high peaks. The locals – our hiking guide Hans, the hotel owner Walter – smile, says it’s not really snow, just Zuckerpulver (powdered sugar) and it will be gone by afternoon. They are right, of course, on both counts, but it is there all the same. Winter: sending a post card from her summer vacation, telling us it was nice and now she is on her way home.”

A mantra

September 2nd, 2009

Our days start with meditation, then yoga exercises. We eat breakfast together, then change into hiking clothes. The hike is long, or short; we eat at a Hütte in the mountains, fresh Bergkäse and air dried beef and hot coffee with milk. We hike back to the hotel, there is time to shower, maybe time to do something before dinner, but just as likely not. We eat dinner together, then meditation and deep relaxation. The days are full, almost too full.

But today:

The blue blue lake, just a reflection of the blue blue sky, changing color when a cloud crosses the sun. (And how would the lake react to being called “just a reflection of the blue blue sky”?)

Two marmots.

Good rich Bündnergerstesuppe well-earned.

The sound of flowing water.

A falcon playing in the drafts around our gondola.

Good revisions to a poem. And writing. Writing this, here, now as if my life depends on it. Which it does. This, this right here, right now – this is my meditation, my centering, my work, my breath, my mantra. These words are the moments. Without these words how can I possibly share the playing of the falcon with somebody who wasn’t there to see it? Always this, coming back to this, finding these words to transfer an experience, make it understandable. Without the words we are forever alone staring at each other across the valley – finding these words allows us to try to build a bridge of understanding. To find each other. To give meaning to our experience. To honor our lives. Without these words we are just lost souls spinning in the darkness. I’m not sure this is the realization my yoga teacher would wish me to have in the middle of a meditation session but there it is: my reality, the only reality I can hope to understand. What do I believe in? In believe in this: in writing these words, one after the other, that lead me, if I am lucky and if I am good, these words that lead me to you. What do I believe in? I believe in you reading these words one after the other. I believe in us meeting each other on the bridge our words have built. And I believe in the spark of recognition that flashes between us when our paths cross.

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May 30th, 2009

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Of pigeons and poems

May 5th, 2009

What is it about small children chasing pigeons? They all do it, the pigeons always fly away, the children always try again. There are many small disappointments that make my son cry, but the escape of the pigeons has never been one of them. He just laughs and tries again.

That is how it should be to try to write a poem and fail: joyful in the running, laughing when the words slip away irredescent against the sky. We do the same thing, my son and I, though he does not know it yet. We chase after pigeons. Sometimes I catch one.

Well how about that

April 28th, 2009

I found a little notebook today. Actually Boychen found it, pulling it out of a desk drawer along with a roll of clear tape, a black binder clip, a sheet of labels, some correction tape, and a 2008 agenda. I don’t remember when I used this notebook – I didn’t date it – but it was inspired by this post, so it would have been some time after that. So May or June of last year, maybe. I spent about a month listing each day a small handful of things that I really, really wanted. The very first line in the notebook?

“I want to publish my poetry.”

And here I am, one year later, with two poems in an on-line journal, four more coming out later in the year, and six currently under consideration.

Tonight, when the boys are asleep, I’m going to flip through the book and see what else I asked for. See what else I got.


April 12th, 2009

I’m still cranky and grumpy and now sick on top of it all. The whole family is sick, we’re a veritable germ factory. I’ve taken to stealing using some of the boys’ ear-drops, it’s that bad. To remind myself that life does not completely suck, I’m copying out something I wrote in my journal yesterday:

I sit here eating an Italian sandwich with the Swiss Alps in front of me while to my back a street performer plays Scottish bagpipes; in my lap is a book of English poetry and in my bag a German novel. This is the life I have chosen. This is the life I have made.

No, it doesn’t all suck.