Monday, December 29, 2008

Cure for the aches and pains of writing . . .

My mother practiced yoga. Which meant that when my friends came to visit, my mom would show them how she stood on her head. And years later, when my daughter had friends visit her grandma, she would show them how she stood on her head. Once she stood on her head in the middle of a party. Another time she did it in the airport. Sometimes she stayed upside down for a while, her face growing redder and redder, as she told how wonderful it is for the body to be upside down. How it cures all kinds of pains and illnesses.

For years I thought she was nuts. (I mean, she is/was nuts.) But I’ve discovered that there are some aches and pains, esp. the kind you get from writing too long—that are best cured by going upside down.

Dreamers and Pragmatists

I envy idealism. I really do, but it also scares me. The way it sweeps people up, the way it can overpower reason. I've been reading and watching too many books and movies where the idealists and evangelists of one kind or another take hold of an audience. There's that voice of logic inside me that starts to panic . . .

At the same time, we need our ideals, right? And sometimes I envy the real dreamers and believers. But they need the pragmatists of the world to join in. It's one of my gripes about the Peace Corps--they take these young dreamers and send them out solo with no real financial support or training (or not much training).

The other night we had a small Peace Corps gathering. One told a story about Mali, how three of the volunteers were killed. The first two were electrocuted. The third was one of the leaders. She had this dream--to bring water to the village. She joined with another NGO and had a tower built. They filled the tower with water on the final day--a day of celebration-and the tower collapsed and killed her.

That story seems like such a metaphor to me . ..

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Dance You Learned As a Kid

Because you learned it as a kid, you do the steps without even thinking of it. You hum the dance tune in your head, even when it's not being played on the radio or stereo, and you don't remember if or when it stopped being played out there and started playing in your mind and dreams. You dance even when you're not meaning to. Dancing and dancing. You add a little flourish, an extra turn or twist, but no one really notices. You miss a beat here and there, but you always manage to catch your breath and jump back in. You think you'll never stop dancing. You think it isn't worth worrying about because for now, anyhow, you're still dancing. You think no one ever stops because even when they stop, even when and if they can stop that is, they still feel their feet moving and their arms and legs and hips . . Like phantom limbs and hips . . .

( I know it's a cliche, but sometimes I feel like oh so cliche.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Scary Moments at the Grocery Store

There aren’t a lot of grocery store option in this part of Ohio. I get to pick between the 3 Giant Eagles. I mean, there’s the one where everyone from the bakery folks to the checkout ladies and baggers are eternally happy. How are you today, Sweetie. Or: You look a little down today, Sweet Heart. The second Giant Eagle is the one where there aren’t enough checkout people, so you go to the auto scanners. It’s sort of an honor system. I often watch the person in front of me pay for apples when he’s buying avocados, or for Boston lettuce when he’s purchasing a spring mix. Finally there’s giant cavernous Giant Eagle. Everyone there looks like they escaped from a prison or a zombie flick. If you are looking for something unusual, either in human or grocery specimens, odds are you might find it there but you go at your own risk.

A month ago I got lost in the giant Giant Eagle. I had just visited the doctor for a sinus infection, and he’d given me a sample of some kind of decongestant that wasn’t supposed to make you feel drowsy. Drowsy was the least of what I felt. The store started expanding in front of me, each aisle getting longer, and next thing I knew, these strange items were appearing in my cart. I kept walking and walking, pushing this overflowing cart, but I couldn’t find the exit. When I finally saw the door, I left as fast as I could, walked out into the sunlight, thankful that there was sunlight, thankful that there was still sky out there. Some miracles you can’t ever be thankful enough for.

Later I called the doctor to tell him the samples were a little scary. Oh, he said, thanks for letting me know. My doctor loves samples and gives them away to anyone willing to take them. In fact my doctor gave a friend of mine some sample anti-depressants once. My friend said every time he took a pill, he got an erection. A major erection that lasted for hours. No, it wasn’t Viagra. When he called the doctor to tell him, the doctor said, yes, he too had noticed this side effect. Then the doctor asked if he wanted some more samples. (And no, I’m not telling you the name of my doctor.) I have this drawer now full of random samples for a variety of occasions. I figure you never know when a sample might come in handy . . .

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Two Kinds of Poets

I sometimes think there are two kinds of poets. The gods and the anti-gods.

The gods are born knowing they are gods, knowing that their words are magic, that their words will be heard, that their words are meant to be sung . . .

These are the ones that know that they must be worshiped. That their words will be made flesh.

As boys and girls, they were the teachers’ pets, the golden children, the ones with their hands raised high in the air, the right answers always at the tips of their tongues.

Of course, the anti-gods are as dark as the gods are light, as invisible as the gods are visible.

The anti-gods are those who are born knowing that no one can see them. No one can hear them.

They are the unwanted, the lost, the unadopted . . .

They are born knowing that something inside them is missing, something is lost, something can never be answered . . . No matter how many pages they fill with words, they feel the blank pages flutter inside them. The emptiness. Some days a god fills the space, or a love, or a ray of sunlight, and they think at last. Of course. Thank you. But by morning the blank space has always returned.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How God Became a Poet

A woman imagines she is a poet. So she spends her life writing. She feels sometimes as if she is writing to someone far away, someone she has never met, a muse, an angel . . . Who knows who? But he or she is someone who wants to read her every word. She writes and writes.

One day she reads about saints who pray in the same way she writes-praying and praying to a god who never answers. She finds it disturbing to think of an unanswering god. Why doesn't he ever bother to answer? she wonders. One night she writes a long letter to the silent god, bitching at him for never answering his devotees, and for never picking up his phone or answering his mail or email.

But why should I answer you? God writes her back. It’s women like you that piss me off, women who expect something. Women who want something. Women who never stop asking . . .
In fact, that’s why I am interviewing for another job. A job where no one knows my name . . .

You could be a poet, the woman suggests . . .

(After that, the woman remembered why she never cared much for gods. And the god remembered why he always disliked women.)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Zen and the Art of Not Writing

Sit quietly at your desk. Arrange in front of you a pile of blank, unlined paper and your favorite pens or pencils, all freshly sharpened. (I prefer the Dixon Ticonderogas, or fountain pens, the cheap kind that bleed all over my fingers.) Breathe deeply. Let the mind be as blank as the paper. Do not think of a word. Do not write a word. Know: the word is but a blemish on the serene white face of the paper. Do not allow a single word to appear.

In this way, many poets have completed entire manuscripts in spite of their efforts to master their craft.

(It's true. The year my friend, Claire, said she wasn't writing another poem ever, and she wasn't sending out her work; and she esp. would never ever enter another book competition, she won a huge book contest and a Pushcart.)

Tales of Abstinence

Thanks Lyle, for your comment on my post below. And yes, I know . . .

There is a Zen story about the artists who go to the temple every year for seven years. For seven years they aren’t allowed to paint. When they finally are allowed to use their paint brushes, they create the most beautiful art.

Seven years, eleven years, and more . . . the mythic way of saying—a very long time.

There are tales told of love/sex like this.

1. A Zen friend told me—how her lover said they must wait for seven years before having sex. He said in this way he would know she loved him for him, and not for what he delicately termed—his other self.

Did you wait? I asked.
Did I waste seven years of good sex? she answered.

2. There was another story I was told once by my Zen friend. It goes something like this.

Once a king had a beautiful daughter, and when she was of age, all the princes in all the lands came to see his princess. (Her name, which I forget because it’s in Japanese, was Flower of the Sky. Or was it Cloud Girl? ) Soon all the princes were asking for her hand in marriage. Ah, the father said, but which one of you loves my daughter, not for her looks, not for her wealth and power, but for her very soul?

Which one of you will wait for seven years?

Each prince said me, me, me. And each day the princes came to visit the beautiful girl. But after one year, one prince gave up hope, and after two, many more gave up hope. Soon there was only one prince who returned to see the lovely girl. The father wasn’t pleased by this prince because he was smaller than the rest, more reserved, though he had impeccable manners and taste.

(Impeccable taste is also something only the Japanese know, my Zen teacher said.)

And so, after seven years, the king relented to the wedding. By then there were no other men in sight, so what could he do? After all, it isn’t good for a woman to marry too late in her life . . .

By then the prince and princess had become good friends. They understood each other. They knew each others inner most secrets. The prince knew how the princess had never wanted to be either a princess or a bride. And the princess knew that the prince was gay, but he lived in a world where many men were gay but none admitted it, especially not princes. And so the two talked of their sufferings, of their mutual feeling of oppression—And so it was that the two married and lived happily ever after, each setting the other free to live his or her life, just as s/he pleased.

3. The third tale I remember is about a man, an artist, who is allowed to love a woman from afar but never really to possess her. At least not for seven years. How did this work? (I can't recall exactly. Neither can the man.) Except that she was nude. Why was she nude? I don't know. Maybe she was model in an art class. Maybe he was a painter. I don't know, but she was always there in some strange room, and in his mind, and in a picture . . . But he could never touch her. (At least not yet.) At first he feared he would turn leathery and old without ever knowing the feel of her skin. But then he began to fear -- if he actually touched her, what then? What if she wasn't the woman he imagined? Best not to try to love her, he then reasoned, lest he lose her. And be disappointed forever after, as he so often was. After all, he was an artist, a perfectionist, a man not easily pleased . . .

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Art of Not Writing

There is a certain power in it. The power of resistance. The power of not giving in.

Sort of like not answering the phone. Not checking the mail or email. You know someone is there. (But it’s probably no one you want to hear from. The no one who is always there.) But if you don’t check, you know it becomes more likely that someone or something is there. The longer you wait, the more certain you can be that an urgent message is waiting. Like a red light beeping. Someone needs you. Someone needed you. Chances are my love -- it is already too late.

The Art of Not Writing


A professor told me once that in order to write, one must learn not to write. One must understand the significance of not writing. Just as one understands winter. The snows fall, and the fields lie fallow so that spring may follow.

Sometimes, he said, he sits in front of a blank page for hours and hours, day after day. He sees it as a snow covered field. He sees the birds fly overhead, and the clouds. Poems will surely come, he says. He can never say when.


A woman sits alone at her desk practicing the art of not writing. It’s quiet in her home. Her husband is at work. Her children are at school. From her office window, she can see that her neighbor is out in her garden, watering flowers. She listens to a woodpecker tapping at the outside of her house. The phone rings. The dog scratches at the other side of the door, and whines, begging to come in. The dog walks in and out of her poem, its long tail wagging and knocking over a vase of flowers sent by a secret lover.


The professor and the woman are both sitting at their desks, staring out into space. Neither of them is writing. They are both practicing the art of not writing. They are both waiting for the poem that has never been written. The poem that is like the silence in a Zen painting. Like the lover they never had. In the morning news they read of children buried in mudslides. They read of travelers stranded in Denver without their luggage. Of masked men who broke into mansions and left no fingerprints and stole no jewels, no money, no artwork. What were they looking for in the carpeted homes of strangers?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winter Moments

1. A woman is seated at the next table in Starbucks with a friend and her grade school son. What do you mean, you doubt God? the woman asks her friend. If there were no God, we would all be stones. Think about it.
Stones? the boy asks.
Stones, the mother answers.

2. My friend is talking to me about the economics of Youngstown. It’s a shadow of the city it once was. It’s what happen to cities, she says. It will happen to San Francisco next. All that rampant materialism out there.
San Francisco? I ask.
Yep, she nods.

3. A student has 2 poetry professors. Call them Poet A and Poet B. She admires them both and feels so lucky to be studying poetry with them. One day Poet A tells her he would love to nail Poet B’s balls to the wall. The student tells me that was her moment of awakening. Before that moment, she always thought poets had souls and minds as lovely as their lines.

4. A woman lets her daughter try on her favorite black keyhole dress. It’s a silky sleeveless dress with a hole (hence the term keyhole) in the back. The daughter tries it on, first with the keyhole in the front to show off cleavage. Then with the keyhole in the back. It’s great, the daughter says. I can wear it out dancing. And to funerals.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

At the Mall

I am at the mall, and I have lost all interest or memory of why I am there. (I always do this at malls. It takes twenty minutes, and then I am out of my body. I am floating around, watching the other shoppers shop, the sellers sell, the mothers tug their children and large bags, the fathers wander off aimlessly like fish in the air . . . ) Some man hands me a card and puts out his hand for money. It's one of those cards that reads I am deaf. Give me money. Or something like that. I give the man a dollar.

I am suddenly distracted by a young girl. She's maybe twelve or thirteen, and she is trying on a skimpy skirt (the kind hat my dad would say- shows more than your legs), boots, and a clingy shirt. Her mother is appalled by the outfit. The girl is pouting and twirling around in front of a mirror. Her breasts hang loosely out of the top of the blouse. She is blond and red-lipped and angry.

You look like a slut, the mother says angrily.
I look normal, the girl says. That's the trouble with you. You have no clue what normal is.
The mother looks at me, suddenly, as if I might help her.
Is that normal? she asks me, pointing at her daughter. Tell her THAT is not normal. Tell her.
The girl glares at me.
I can't think of what to say. So I give the mother the man's card. I am deaf . . .

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When a Woman Farts

I'm listening to this guy talk with his friend. He says --

This is the way it is with women. They put on this act for a few weeks,
and you do, too. You're all polished up. She's always gussied up.
She's always saying nice things, and you are admiring her this,
her that . . .
And oh, it's just so AMAZING. And you think how beautiful you both are . . .
And all you do is worry about the if or the what and maybe the when

and then one day you take her to bed once, and you're still so nice, and it's still so beautiful . . .

And so you take her to bed again, and she's still trying to keep her makeup on
and her nice nice on. And her beautiful this and that. And you, too . . .

But then one day, she doesn't care about the if or the what
and then another day she doesn't do or say or wear this or that
and you don't either

And then finally . . .
she farts.
She farts in bed.
(This is the moment you've been waiting for.)
When a woman farts in bed, it means the nice is over.

I mark that day on my calendar.
September 15. Alice farted.

That's when things get real.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Shadow of the Wind

Last night I stayed up late reading The Shadow of the Wind. I thought if only I can finish this book, I can get on with my long list of things to do. This morning, when I finally put the book down, I was relieved for about 10 minutes.

Then I did a search to find out if the author, Carlos Luis Zafon, had written any other books. I am suddenly feeling desperate for another book I can't put down.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Almost You

I was in the store the other day, and this woman started gushing. I can't believe it's you. And when I turned to face her, she realized it wasn't.

No, I am sorry, I wanted to say. I wasn't you. But I was almost you.

You look so much like Sarah, the woman said.

Yes, I agreed. I do.

It's true. I don't know who Sarah is, but I am her mirror image. I have been mistaken for her many times. I have even insulted people who know her by snubbing them as I walk right past them, blank-faced. Sarah, I've learned, is kind of a bitch. She doesn't talk to just anyone.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Elsa Higby made me a beautiful web site! She's amazing. CHECK IT OUT!!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Funny Questions

Okay, now that I posted yesterday about funny questions, I'll add one of the funnier questions I have ever been asked at a reading.

The question was about a poem I had read, which included quotes from Elvis. "I liked that last poem a lot," a young man said politely. "Was that Shakespeare you were quoting?"

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Questions from Poetry Readings

Someone asked me at my last reading what were the funniest questions I'd ever been asked at a poetry reading. I thought about the usual questions . . . None of which are particularly funny, but they make me smile a little, maybe because of the quantitative or perscriptive view of writing . . .

Do you write every day? Do you write at the same time with the same type of pen and paper every day? Do you write the same number of pages or words each day? Do you write for the same number of hours? Do you prefer lined or unlined paper? Do you compose on the computer or in the back of your mind? Do you belong to a book group or a writing group? Do you need to be with other writers? Do you like other poets? Which one or ones? Do you wish you lived in New York City or L.A. or D.C. ? Or do you prefer to live in Poland, Ohio? Are your kids ashamed of you? What about your mom? Do you feel guilty? Or depressed? What depresses you? Do you think all poetry and poets suffer from depression? Do you ever wish you weren't a poet? If you could not be a poet, who would you be?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Naomi Shihab Nye

is the best. I met her last night, and was so impressed. She's as beautiful as her poems. Such an amazing spirit! Meeting her is almost as great as meeting the Dalai Lama. A Dalai Mama --I think she is that.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Reading at Cedars

Suzanne and I went to the reading at Cedar's last night. Maggie Anderson was supposed to read, but she wimped out on us, due to snow. I mean, yeah, there was a tiny bit of snow, but there's always some snow. I mean it's winter in Ohio. But maybe it's best she didn't come. I mean, there weren't many people there. But the reading was so much fun anyhow. Among the readers , there was Mel who read a nice selection from the book she is writing about growing up in Malasia. Steve Reese read a really funny anniversary poem. Phil Brady recited a poem from Neruda that made the poem almost better than Neruda. (Okay, maybe you can't get any better than that, but it was beautiful.) And Chris Barzak read from his new book, The Love We Share Without Knowing--a selection from a love story in which the protagonist was feeding on the life stories of his beloved. He kept asking for more stories until he knew the other's life stories better than his own.

I can't wait to read Chris's new book. I just bought it . .

Like the narrator in his book, I love to hear people's life stories, as much for what they say about that person's life as for what they don't say. After all, it's impossible to tell your story without editing. Without framing, without deleting, creating and recreating . . .

Otherwise there's too much information. For me that's always been the experience anyhow. Life is such an overwhelm. You can't take it all in. There's too much pain, too much beauty, too much meaning, too much meaninglessness . . .

Even in the simplest moments. I remember once in a high school art class, I was painting a tree in spring. It was an assignment. And while everyone else was done in a day, I kept painting and painting day after day, trying to recreate every leaf and shadow before it changed . . . In the end I finished about a quarter of my picture. The teacher called my style pointillist and made me stop after a few weeks. He praised my eye for detail.

For me, it was just a good example of my particular form of frustration or neurosis or myopia. My ablity to obsess on small details and not get to the whole.

Which is probably the reason I write in small forms. If I compose a piece more than three pages, I think it's too long. And I start to whittle it down to size.