Aspiring Author March Blog Post: Practicing Poetry: Walking and Noticing

I’m reposting some of my original writing from  The Aspiring Author Blog, where I’m a regular contributor. My fellow bloggers post about writing in their respective genres. If you’re looking for fun writing advice, check it out!

 

“You’re a poet now!” cries my friend upon hearing of only my second poetry acceptance, and I cringe. I shirk this phrase for two opposite reasons: first, because introducing myself as a poet somehow feels pretentious, as if I am putting on airs of laureates and Keats and the Brownings. How can I claim such a title in a field that demands more learning from me every day, that has many hills but no apex?

My students and I joke that I’m not quite a poet yet, but I am a “poetry professional.” I teach a poetry class at our high school and I tell students they can always come to me with their questions because in this room, in this cafeteria, I am the poetry expert. But it’s all relative.

The other reason I don’t like that phrase is the word “now.” Publication hasn’t suddenly made me a poet, my soul has. There’s something inherent to me that makes me see the world a different way, a way that is sometimes more painful and more sensitive. My emotionality has led me to choose to live my life awake to beauty and open to receiving. Words come easy to me, phrases like “the consolation of friendship” and “a lover of peonies” float around in the air around me and become poem titles. And then I choose to fill those poems with things I see and touch, and write them down.

And what’s actually incredible about this is that I’m not special. I make no pretense that these qualities are unique to me; I think that all of us are capable of great emotional depth, specific visions, or perfectly curated words. I tell my students that each one of them can and will write poetry in my class. And I believe it! But to be “poets” in how we see the world, we have to make the choice to walk through the world a certain way, and most people don’t. Most people, most of the time, hurry. Most people graze the surface.
It takes practice, I have learned, to develop the habit of slowing down and noticing the particulars of the world. You can do this sitting at your desk and looking out the window, or closing your eyes as you sip your tea. You can notice snippets of conversation or the way a storm billows. Or, as I find it particularly fruitful, you can walk.

I am lucky enough to live in a particularly beautiful neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. These days I can’t get enough of the idea that spring is coming. It hasn’t been a harsh winter, but it’s been long, and I’m so ready to move on to the next thing. I find myself walking more often in the afternoons after school, since the sun is out longer and the weather, while still chilly, is refreshing instead of achingly cold. I’m looking eagerly for signs of spring, searching for the buds on the trees, the first brave purple crocuses, the fat robins perching everywhere.

No matter what images or ideas I find, I collect them and use them to populate my writing. I’ve heard this concept called a “magpie essay” in various places, and I like the name though I didn’t create it. We are collectors of shiny, pretty things, aren’t we? Things we like to fiddle with or remember.

I’ve now written a couple of magpie poems, in which I catalogue things I have noticed and try to draw some connections between them. Here’s a list of things I’ve noticed that fit into one poem:

the twisting of a sprouting weed
the thorns on a tree
eggshells
blue flowers
snails
February buds
oval leaves of an ash
butterflies
fences with gaps
telephone poles covered in staples from flyers
a coy baby rabbit
a spider weaving her web
a garden

How do the things we notice come together into a poem?

As I write these posts on poetry and nonfiction writing each month, I hope to include a practical exercise or idea for you to try. One of the first lessons I taught to my poetry class this year was the “I saw” poem. Write down “I saw” on 3 lines in a notebook. Then fill them in with whatever you can gather.

“I saw” is different than “I see” because you can’t just look around for the answers. You have to remember what you saw, which means you must choose, somewhere in your brain what you want to include in the record of your sight. Then you may ask yourself, “why did I remember this?” and as you start to choose how all the shiny things collide, you begin to make a poem.

Here’s the latest one I’ve written:

I saw a tree tied with a bandage
I saw a tumult of bricks around it.

I saw a broken sidewalk that urges slower walking, no tripping,
a forgiveness for imperfection

 

Poetry is the art of noticing. Isn’t that the thing we most desire sometimes? To be noticed and known. To feel the eyes on us that value and adorn, rather than strip and smirk. Could we not grant this gift to the people around us and to the world?

 

Thanks for reading! My next post on The Aspiring Author Blog will be September 26th. 

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Seeds of a Garden: a novice tries raising plants

I don’t profess to be any sort of expert when it comes to gardening or caring for houseplants. If we were to add up all the plants I have successfully cared for in my adult life before moving into this apartment, the total would be: one. A cactus, named Spike, whose care I took over for a while from a friend and then gave to another friend. I forgot to water him most of the time. He did not die.

But since moving into my apartment in July of last year, I’ve become interested in caring for plants. It brightens my home quite a bit to have little green guys on all the windowsills, and it’s an opportunity for me to learn. There’s great joy (and sometimes great frustration) in admitting that one is a beginner and trying to learn from there.

🌱

 

Today I’m learning about….. cyclamen!

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I bought little Venetia here from Trader Joe’s several weeks ago, not knowing what she was. I believe I described her as “some funky kinda orchid thing” to a friend.  At that point she had beautiful white flowers.  I set her on my nightstand, with occasional trips to the windowsill for extra sun, and watered occasionally. She did pretty well for a while! 

Cyclamen have beautiful flowers; they kind of look like they’re upside down, or like a butterfly is pretending to be a flower, or like a deconstructed post-modern tulip. They come in many colors, but mine is white.

cyclamen
Photo copyright Royal Horticultural Society 1996: RHS

 

So Venetia bloomed for maybe a month. Then the flowers started falling off, and the stems started drooping, and the leaves got wilty and then crunched. Sad!

What I know now, but didn’t know then, is that this means the plant is not dying, but instead going into dormancy. Cyclamen come from the mediterranean, where winters are mild and moist and summers are dryer. When summer comes along, it’s natural for the flowers to die, the leaves to wither, and new growth to stop.

Cyclamen flowers grow from a tuber, which is a great crossword puzzle word that you rarely get to use in real life. Like a bulb, a tuber sits underground for an extended period of time before stimulating growth. Once I learned this, I went to look at my plant (murmuring tuber, tuber, tubey-tuber under my breath) and sure enough, there’s a little mound sticking up slightly out of the soil. It almost looks like the top of a mushroom and it’s firm to the touch.

This presents an exciting challenge for the beginning gardener. If I play my cards right, I could have a perennially blooming plant. AND the cyclamen’s growth period is opposite of most of the other plants around, so as the days are getting darker and cooling off, my beautiful flowers should come back into the limelight.

Here’s what I have to do next.

Cyclamen Care After Blooming

After a cyclamen blooms, it will go into a dormant state. Going into a dormant state looks very much like the plant is dying, as the leaves will turn yellow and fall off. It isn’t dead, just sleeping. With proper cyclamen plant care, you can help it through its dormancy and it will rebloom in a few months. (Please note that hardy cyclamen planted outdoors will go through this process naturally and do not need extra care to rebloom.) When taking care of a cyclamen after blooming, allow the leaves to die and stop watering the plant once you see the signs that the leaves are dying. Place the plant in a cool, somewhat dark place. You can remove any dead foliage, if you would like. Let sit for two months.

Taking Care of a Cyclamen to Get it to Rebloom

Once a cyclamen has finished its dormant period, you can start to water it again and bring it out of storage. You may see some leaf growth, and this is okay. Make sure to completely soak the soil. You may want to set the pot in a tub of water for an hour or so, then make sure any excess water drains away. Check the cyclamen tuber and make sure that the tuber has not outgrown the pot. If the tuber seems crowded, repot the cyclamen to a larger pot. Once the leaves start to grow, resume normal cyclamen care and the plant should rebloom shortly.

Read more at Gardening Know How: Cyclamen Plant Care – Tips For Taking Care Of A Cyclamen https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/houseplants/cyclamen/cyclamen-care.htm

 

I flubbed this process a little already, because when the leaves had mostly died off, I successfully revived it by adding more water rather than letting it go dormant. So I’m cutting you off, Venetia! No more water for you, you little spendthrift! You are banished to the bureau, where it will stay relatively cool and dim.

I’m not sure how successful this will be – first because I didn’t go right to dormancy but have had a second growth period (look how healthy these leaves look! As a side note, I love the heart shape of the leaves.). And secondly because my house does not stay very cool in the summer. With no central air, even in New England, we get some pretty warm days. But it will be a good experiment.

On a less practical note, I’m touched by the idea of a plant that sleeps all summer and reawakens in the winter. When stillness and heavy cold set in, my mediterranean Venetia will be abloom. All the world around me scorns winter, it seems, and wants heat and sun. I’m the opposite – heat makes me grumpy and summer days are too long to fill with creativity and productive thought. But I’ve always found myself re-energized when autumn arrives, filled with new purpose and excitement for chilly days and snow. I am putting every effort into embracing summer, but I’m pleased that when the cooler days come, and I start feeling that fall sparkle, it’ll be time to flood Venetia’s soil with water and say “wake up!” so we can both get ready to bloom.

Most of the information in this article came from the article cited above, as well as these videos: Caring for Cyclamen and Cyclamen Care Basics Step by Step. 

Aspiring Author May Blog Post: Poetry: To Whom Do You Write?

I’m reposting some of my original writing from  The Aspiring Author Blog, where I’m a regular contributor. My fellow bloggers post about writing in their respective genres. If you’re looking for fun writing advice, check it out!

“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver

The oft-quoted Mary Oliver poem, “Summer Day” is usually reduced to the last two lines and seen as a call to action. What interests me is that the rest of the poem doesn’t say “you” at all – it’s about the speaker, “I”, and then at the very end switches to the reader. It turns the meditation on us, and asks us to choose, because life is short.

Sometimes poems reach out and grab you by the throat. They shake you awake; they run a soft hand over the goosebumps you are wearing. They, speak to you — yes, you — I’m talkin’ ta YOU.

But do the writers of these poems know us? Could they even imagine us? What if we didn’t exist at the time of their writing? What if we are very small and they are very big and important?

I find that poems come more easily when I address them to someone. Recently, I’ve written to a future son, the graduating seniors I teach, a long-distance friend of mine who could be more than a friend, another future child but not necessarily a son, and a mystery, beloved “you.” All of these poems have a special flavor based on their object, a certain language of feeling. At least they do to me. I wonder: will readers still relate to them if the “you” is too specific?

And why am I so drawn to this way in the first place? It probably would not be possible to write these poems with these specific colors without the element of “you,” but I’m not sure why.

Sometimes poetry can be a way of saying what we cannot say to someone. Because he would hurt us, because she wouldn’t listen, because they are not born yet. Or it can be a way of imagining conversations that are foreign to us, scary, uncertain, exciting.

If you’ve never written a poem to someone before, I recommend trying it. Here are some ways to start:

1) Write an Ode

The day we write odes in my high school poetry class is a fun one — we read dreamy Harlem Renaissance odes like “To a Dark Girl” by Gwendolyn Bennett or strident ones like Countee Cullen’s “Atlantic City Waiter.” Then the kids and I have to write our own odes. We get to choose any object – a person, thing or idea, and write a poem praising it or describing it. I wrote to a dear teacher friend of mine, describing her crinkled curls and her too-loud laugh, which I love. My students chose a wide variety of beloved “you”s: her mom, her boyfriend’s red sweatshirt that she always steals, the 4×4 at Wendy’s late at night, his dog Blitz, and “an Ode-a to Yoda.”

When you write your ode, think about starting each line with “you” or “your”; this jump starts your ability to describe the person as you extol their virtues.

 

2) Write a message in a bottle

This exercise yielded some interesting results when we tried it in class. Many students wrote as if they were stranded on an island and just wanted someone to know – not even to be rescued but to be remembered. And some, oddly, wrote to a person stranded on an island. “If you are lost, don’t panic! Just send a message back in this bottle, and someone might find it and send help.” I loved this hopeful vision.

I decided to go more abstract, writing to an unknown and far away “you” about whom something could still be known. So I will end this post with the poem I wrote that day, which is a tribute and a love song to the graduating seniors of my school.

 

A Message in a Bottle

Oh greetings to you in your wide world
on your coastline laced with brambles
and sage grouse and sandbrush.
What does your wide world look like today?
Are the skies lined with orange and sea salt?
Are the hands you carry still free?

What will you give yourself to sail,
what craft will embark today with you at the helm?
In every possible light you are fated
to venture so far you follow the stars.
In every decade you’ll sink in the sea
so far down the coral is sun.

But what does your wide world tell you today?
Does it whisper or shout or sing?
How will you answer
as you look at the waves?
Speak welcome — then throw the bottle back.

 

a little snow poem

in honor of the first snow – November 15th 2018 

 

a little snow poem

 

now it has snowed
and I am peeking out
for when the squirrels with their
tender, agile feet
hop lovingly into drifts
then freeze and snapshot their eyes
at any sound, their paws to their chins,
as though any disturbance to this
quiet must mean wolves.

Friday Reading Rainbow

I’ve hardly been reading at all since the school year started. I think this is a fairly normal bump off the priorities list — as opposed to the doldrum depression of summer when it seems only books can save me from my despair, the school year brings new energy, movement, and a restructuring of time. There don’t seem to be long afternoons for cafes anymore, and at night I work out puzzles in my head: how to help that student, how to introduce a lesson I’m excited about, what to write next. My eyes are more tired now, and my brain is more manic.

I talk to my kids sometimes about stamina and volume in reading. I tell them that they need to work on their stamina and focus now so that they’ll be able to keep up with the huge volume of reading they’ll encounter in college. And I admit to them that I struggle with this sometimes. I remember when I was a kid, able to read for hours straight without moving, getting so focused on the story that I’d miss my dad calling me to dinner. Now, 20 minutes of focus on text is a lot to ask of myself. And I haven’t been asking for it much. Since the school year started I’ve started two books but not finished them, either disenchanted with the writing or unable to keep up with the story after picking up the book for too little time with too little frequency.

What fixed this was my best friend, Hammy. He visited this past weekend and suddenly my solitary little home and my normal quiet Friday night was full of another (wonderful) person. With the temporary death of my loneliness and the departure of my alone time, I found my brain keeping up this pattern of darting around without focus. We visited one of my perennial favorite places, a gorgeous local bookstore (check them out – Paper Nautilus) and after looking at stacks upon stacks of interesting used books, I felt the guilt of not reading twisting around a strong urge to read. So we went home, and we sat together on my couch, and we each read about 30 pages, companionably silent, chuckling and reading out good lines. And with that commitment of focus, my reading life has been restored.

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The book I picked up that day was Brass, by Xhenet Aliu. I’m really amused and delighted by the way this book is written. It feels so real and gritty, yet intimate and sensual in some moments. The story is a mirrored one of Elsie and her daughter Luljeta, both lost and struggling in their youth as working-class, immigrant-born women. Where I am in the story, the mood is one of dull despair, and I’m doubting that Luljeta or her mother will “make it out.” I’m interested to see how Aliu grants agency and power to her seemingly powerless characters. I highly recommend it: Find a copy at your local indie bookstore

 

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.org I’m also continuing my reading of the posthumous collection of Marina Keegan’s writing, The Opposite of Loneliness.  I’m amazed by how much her work speaks for my specific generation. I feel like she’s heard me, given voice to me, and I want to reassure her that we are something and that she was someone. It’s so hard to feel the fact that a gorgeous voice is gone.

For my older or younger friends, if you’ve ever thought that millenials are annoying or spoiled or entitled or gutless, you might want to read this essay, “Song for the Special”. Feel how fundamentally human it is to want to be somebody and then try to judge us.

Now that I’ve officially turned the heat on in my little apartment, I think I’ll be able to find more quiet time. I love autumn rainstorms and chilly late nights and early mornings with blueberry muffins. Reading and writing (which I am attempting to practice daily) fit nicely into that niche.

What’s next? I have far too many books and very little inkling of which ones I’ll enjoy next. Anyone have recommendations?