Field guide to right here

December 16th, 2010

One of the many bits of advice Marge gave in her workshop was to buy field guides. Star maps. Tidal charts. Anything that helps you name the world in all of its specificity. The act of naming – that is not a songbird feeding outside my kitchen window right now, it is a great tit – in turn teaches you to notice the details, to play closer attention to differences. That other bird, that is not a great tit although it looks very similar – it is a blue tit. And really, there is a world of difference between telling you there is a bird standing on the bench outside and telling you there is a jay standing on the bench outside.

We live on a farm, next to the woods, and my mother-in-law and I put out feeders for the birds in the winter and they stay here, all winter, flitting from her trees to mine to the high limbs of the willow when one of the two half-wild cats on the property comes prowling by. (Half-wild because they live outside and hunt things but my mother-in-law also puts out food for them and manages, somehow, to get them to a vet every year; as cat lives go, I’m thinking these two have got it made.) I want to name these birds and the water fowl in the pond in the woods. That is going to be my winter project, to come to know the farm and the pond in the woods next to us as well as Thoreau knew his Walden Pond. To name things.

A few years ago I read the novel Letters From Yellowstone. It tells the story of a field study in Yellowstone National Park at the turn of the century; the main character is an amateur botanist who manages to get herself attached to the team (no small feat, in 1898, given her gender; she goes by her initials and the leader of the team of course assumed that such an accomplished botanist would be male). She collects, identifies and sketches the local flora; she is precise about using scientific names because she believes that using common names leads to confusion and misunderstanding when two people have different names for the same plant. Thoreau, too, knew the Latin names for the things around him and I think I am going to try to learn these too, or at least take note of them.

Outside my kitchen window I can see a jay (Garrulus glandarius) and he is my favorite – I have a weakness for the Corvidae, after all – half a dozen or ten great tits (Parus major), one blue tit (Parus caeruleus), blackbirds (Turdus merula), one robin (Erithacus rubecula), and a mob of house sparrows (Passer domesticus). I caught sight of a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) digging a hole in our yard at lunchtime; I’ve never seen him before. Or have I simply not noticed? But now I have noticed him and looked him up in a field guide and named him. We honor the things around us by allowing them to have their names, to take up space on the page. To be seen.

There is a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) digging in my front yard, and I would like to thank him for visiting. For giving me the gift of him.

UPDATED December 17 to add: I’ve spotted the second jay. I knew there had to be at least one more…

There were also lobster rolls

July 18th, 2010

There wasn’t just poetry. There were also lobster rolls. I ate lobster rolls from the day I landed in Boston to the day I left. I also ate whole lobster, and crab cakes, and fisherman’s stew, and fabulous egg dishes and homemade scones, and pizza by the slice while watching the tide come and go at Duck Creek. I had lattes in the afternoon with individual sized cherry cheesecakes while writing my poems for the next day. I had a beer now and then and, on one occasion, margaritas. (Several.) I ate constantly, wonderfully, deliciously. I ate and ate and ate. I ate much and well. Much more and much more well than usual. I love my boys, but sweet Foxy Brown they manage to take the sheer selfish sensual pleasure of eating from the dinner-time experience and my god how I loved stuffing myself with lobster and crab cakes.

I need more of that in my life. More food, more good food, more grown up food.

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.