Wordless Wednesday: Snow castle edition

February 27th, 2013

New poem up

February 19th, 2013

My poem “Winter Passage” is up at Heron Tree this week. I really like the Heron Tree format: they publish one poem a week and it’s featured all week. New poems are published each Sunday and previous poems are available in the archives. Check them out!

This is a test. Repeat: this is only a test.

February 7th, 2013

Every year the sirens catch me by surprise. They shouldn’t; it’s a well-established ritual that Switzerland tests the warning sirens of the civil defense system every year at 13:30 on the first Wednesday in February. But it seems to me that the public service announcements reminding people of the annual test are less prominent than they used to be, or maybe it’s just that way out in the village. Things are easy to miss out here. So yesterday as I was finishing up in the kitchen and the boys were playing a hockey video game (neither of them have school or Kindergarten Wednesday afternoons) I thought I heard sirens. I ignored it for a few minutes, thinking it was background noise on the video game – the stadium sounds incorporated in the game are full of sirens and horns when somebody scores a goal – and then I finally asked the boys to turn the volume off for a minute and there it was: the rolling ascending and descending tones of sirens. Then I looked at the calendar and the clock and remembered: testing the General Alarm.

We live a bit outside the village; the alarm is hard to hear out here but I did hear it. But they don’t take any chances out in the farming village, and part of the general alarm system out here involves a fire truck driving out to the more remote houses. They drove by, siren going, and turned around in my in-laws’ driveway and then, presumably, continued on to the other farm a little further down on the other side of the main road.

For us the testing lasted half an hour. In areas of the country with a number of dams – the Ticino, for example – there is then a second testing of the Water Emergency Sirens. These warning sirens make a different noise from the General Alarm. I’ve never heard them, because they’re not used where I am, but I understand it’s a series of 12 long tones.

Should the General Alarm sound at other than the expected time, residents should turn on the TV or radio for more information; you should also notify your neighbors to make sure they heard it. If the Water Alarm sounds unexpectedly – evacuate immediately.

Over the years I’ve known a few people who flat out hate the siren testing (and yes, they’re no fun when they wake the sleeping toddler from the afternoon nap, but it’s only once a year) but for me it’s one of those quirky, wonderful things I’ve come to love about the Alpine Fortress. I mean, they sent a fire truck out here, just for the six of us! You’ve got to love that just a little bit.

I found this YouTube video sample of what the siren testing sounds like around the Zürcher See (lake of Zürich). Turn your volume down if you’re at work, you might startle somebody!

On revision

January 23rd, 2013

As I cull poem after poem from my chapbook, I’m drawing strength from these lines by Annie Dillard (in The Writing Life).

The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.

I had thought my chapbook was about an event in the narrator’s life, but it’s not. It’s about the aftermath, and all the poems about the event are just background in my head. Only the aftermath poems matter.

The dangerous edge

January 19th, 2013

How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge – a dangerous edge – and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?
          Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

I’ve had a poem accepted at Heron Tree – it’s not up yet; I’ll be sure to link to it when it goes live – but this isn’t about that. It’s about the earlier version of that same poem that a different journal passed on (and I’d like to thank those editors for passing on it; they were right, of course) and the revision that made the difference.

It’s a tricky thing getting that notification back from a journal: sorry, we’re unable to use this piece. So far, in my short experience in sending out work for publication, the rejection letters/emails I’ve received have almost always been of the form rejection variety. I understand that and don’t begrudge editors one bit for not commenting on the whys or hows of the rejection process – editors are busy, generally unpaid, doing their best to keep up with what I understand to be a steady increase in the number of submissions they receive. They can’t comment on every piece and I don’t expect them to; it’s wonderful when it happens, but I understand why it’s not common practice. Once or twice I have received feedback from an editor: one editor commented that the particular poems she read aren’t for her but she liked the voice and would I please send new work in the future (taking the advice of Kelli Russell Agodon from this post, I did submit again and sooner rather than later) and once I received the comment that a translation of a Swiss phrase I used in a poem would have been helpful. But for the most part, I’m never sure why a particular journal passed on a particular work.

I always take a hard look at my poems after a rejection letter. Generally, after looking the poems over, I still believe in them as they stands and assume that they just weren’t right for the journal for whatever reason but not that the poems are on their face artistically unsound. I’m so slow about submitting my work that I rarely send out something that hasn’t been worked over and over (which sometimes can be the problem, I suppose, if I edit the poor thing to death, dousing the initial spark that set it off in the first place). Sometimes I do see that I sent the piece out one draft too soon: I’ll see a place where I could push a little harder; a word that could be fresher or more precise (perhaps use “vestiges” rather than “traces” or the other way around); an image that isn’t working. And sometimes, I can see that I was just holding back.

That’s the case with this poem, and I’m not sure why I didn’t see it in the earlier submission. (Well, that’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it, to read your own work as clearly as your best critique partner reads it? Clearly I’m still on the quest…) The earlier version used lovely language but it was…reserved. Careful. The revision brings the narrator more clearly into focus, and the narrator has something at stake. I’m even willing to say that Imight have something at stake in this poem now. I thought there was something at stake in the earlier version, I must have believed that or I wouldn’t have sent it out – I generally don’t go off half-cocked when it comes to my work – but looking back at that version now, I can see how it skirted the issue. It leaned heavily on language to disguise the fact that it was still keeping its secret; the revision (I think) lets the reader see past the language to the truth.

This goes right to the heart of my writing resolution for the year: to take greater risks in my writing, greater emotional risk, to go as I said in my writing goals post “closer to the edge and to stay there a beat longer than is comfortable.” I think the later version of this poem does that, and I think that’s why it was picked up this time around. Now, to learn how to recognize that sooner.

Now, to learn how to climb the trail to that dangerous edge.

Poetry roundup

January 11th, 2013

This morning my brother-in-law J. put down his horses. He drove them away one at a time, though he has a horse trailer for two, not wanting one to wait at the hospital for the time it took to euthanize the first. He took Lady first, the old dappled grey and white mare who hasn’t been able to take a rider for years but was, for a long time, healthy enough to keep Cyprus company. Cyprus, a chestnut gelding, whinnied the whole time Lady was gone; they have been constant companions for years, parted only when J. took Cyprus for a ride which he hasn’t been able to do for at least a year now. My brother-in-law drove him away about two hours after Lady. I haven’t seen him yet today. The whole family is torn up, but I’m guessing J. most of all. It’s a hard thing, to love an animal, to hold its welfare in your hands.

I’ve just got one poem for you this week, “The Love of Aged Horses” by Jane Hirshfield (from the Atlantic Online, February 1994).

Sad

January 10th, 2013

Not looking for any poetry comments, just sympathy – especially for the Boychen. The horse in this old poem of mine is going to the animal hospital tomorrow, and she won’t be coming home.

Of Apples and Autumn and Small Boys in Love With Horses
       for Boychen

I choke on the calendar like an apple
I tried to get down in one bite when

even the horse knows to break it
open, crush it to a juicy softness

before swallowing. We have brought
her orchards of apples autumn after

autumn. You used to roll them under
the fence, and when you press now

your fingers together and reach out
over the wire, apple balanced in your

outstretched palm like an offering,
I see how you have grown.

I try to count autumns, the apples
that have crossed this fence line.

The horse lips it from your palm,
cracks it open, drools saliva

and apple juice. You pat her muzzle,
she sniffs around for more.

Finding nothing, she returns to the grass.
You walk up the road towards home.

Writing goals: 2012 wrap up and 2013 goals

January 1st, 2013

I was almost afraid to look back at the writing goals I set for myself this year, so sure was I that I’d fallen short. Although, I don’t know, I’m starting to think that if you meet all your goals you’re probably setting the bar too low in at least one area; or maybe I’m just a striver – the American in me – ambitious, ehrgeitzig (not always a complement in Switzerland – more often than not, rather the opposite actually). Positive or negative, it’s what I do: set the goals, write the to-do lists, plot out numbers to reach and the timeframes in which to reach them. A goal, a destination, a fixed point on the horizon by which I might guide myself – it’s how I operate.

I set out some pretty specific goals last year, inspired by January Gill O’Neil’s “poetry action plans” she sets out on her own blog every year. My goals were to:

  • Produce 52 decent drafts – I wrote 45 poems last year, and I’m disappointed I fell short because for awhile there I was on a real tear, and then the wheels came off the poetry bus in November and December. I think I might just have exhausted myself. I noticed that in 2011 I wrote 42 poems, so it might be that with the shape of my life right now, 40 -45 decent drafts a year is how it’s going to be. We’ll see.
  • Continue to strive for a daily writing practice – I might never pull this one off. I’m not sure why this is so hard for me.
  • Post to my blog twice a week – I fell short here, too, but I’ve been rethinking the blog and starting to use it in different ways so I think I might just be in transition here.
  • Enter poems in one contest – I actually entered two, and didn’t place in either of them. Oh well.
  • Send out 20 packages – I submitted 15 times in 2012, and this is not enough.
  • Participate in two writing workshops, either live or on-line – I attended the Geneva Writers’ Conference in February and attended a workshop in Virginia with Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, and Dorianne Laux. Both were fantastic experiences. I also worked on-line with Kim Addonizio. I said it last year and I’ll say it again: her on-line workshops are fantastic.
  • Finish the in progress chapbook (if only in terms of sheer number of poems). I’ll eliminate the requirement that it be “contest ready” but dang it, I want to finish this project at this point if only for the sake of finishing the project. – Ah, the chapbook. Ever the wild card. This is a yes and a no, actually. I did finish what I’m calling a chapbook manuscript and I printed it out and read it through many times, taking notes along the way, trying hard to read it as if it were the work of a critique buddy and not my own. I asked the question, “what is my manuscript doing?” I moved poems around, grouped and re-grouped. The more I read the manuscript, the more I realized I had only begun to touch on what I really wanted to say. Many of the poems are simply “backstory” – necessary for me to write, I think, to get my head to the place where the real work begins, but they do not bring anything to the manuscript. They are, in fact, not the real story. So over the past six weeks of reading and note-taking I’ve decided to remove nearly half of the poems from the manuscript, leaving my chapbook… incomplete. But I only learned that it was incomplete upon completing it, if that makes any sense. So I’m calling this one a draw.
  • Build relationships with other writers – Ah, yes, I’ve found some wonderful writing companions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my 2013 goals, and at the top of my list is to take greater risks in my writing. I noticed this when I reviewed my manuscript – a certain grouping of poems is much stronger than the almost all the other poems, and these stronger poems are the ones where I feel the most vulnerable. You know when you write something and you’re almost afraid that your friends and family will read it and think you’re telling the actual truth about your actual life? Those poems? The ones that scare you, make you feel like you’re climbing without a safety harness? Those are the best ones. They’re my risky ones and seeing those poems sitting side-by-side with much safer poems really drove home the need for me to take more risks, to go closer to the edge and to stay there a beat longer than is comfortable. So that’s my number one writing goal for 2013. Write the poems that scare me.

I do believe in the value of quantifiable goals, so I’m going to say again: 52 poems this year.

I should be submitting my work more often, so I’m going to say again: send out at least 20 packages this year.

I’m going to pull back from workshopping, but if some amazing opportunity presents itself I’d probably go for it. But I think if I’m trying to take risks and write the poems that scare me, if I’m trying new things, I might need to do that inside the safety of my own head for a while.

So there they are, my writing goals for the new year. What’s on your agenda – writing or otherwise – for 2013?

And ig wünsch üch en guete Rutsch is 2013! (Happy New Year!)