The List Poem

Further thoughts on messiness.

Last week, at Writing Lab, my friend Kathryn shared a poem about the inauguration. It did not include any political leanings or intent. It was a string of images that she had collected throughout the day. It was profound.

This morning I spent an hour working with the poems of another friend, and I began thinking about how my poems often begin with a kind of announcement of what the poem will include. In a way, though, the poem IS that announcement. The poem can be a kind of machine for thinking through a memory or an incident or a desire.

I googled “list poem” and came up with a number of prompts: a list of what bugs you, a list of what you find around you in the thisherenow, a list of I-am details or reflections.

What impressed me about Kathryn’s poem — the beauty of this form — was how it did not editorialize, didn’t need to editorialize. What Kathryn paid attention to could be interpreted, of course, but the poem became that machine for not only her thinking, but for the reader’s thinking, too. It made us complicit. Looking around the room, you could see her audience time-tripping back to their own inaugural day images.

A friend at church yesterday did something very similar when she stood up and shared her experience of going to the women’s march in Washington D. C. She had her pink hat for show-and-tell, and the details she shared were images — a kind of poem, in themselves. She concluded beautifully with her strongest image, one sign that she encountered that day (an echo of pastor Martin Niemoller‘s famous lines): “First they came for the Muslims, and we said NOT TODAY.”

It is never tidy, of course. After my friend spoke, a more conservative man from our congregation stood up and offered his list. (Well, as we say, “The body of Christ is very large.”)

(The image is from poet  Jennifer Bullis’s blog.)


I have friends who are conservative, progressive, and in between. They know where I stand because of what I pay attention to. A list poem can do that, too.


93e6d2c628eb19968bf92822be8a4d50So, a little voice in my head is whispering, “Your readers know this already. EVERYONE knows it. YOU know it. There is no point to elaborating it again.”

But I think there is a point, and what it really has to do with is my continuing process of “learning in public” that I practice here. I share my missteps and foibles, my big dreams, my small steps. And you listen. You comment (once in a while), you email me (often). We are in this together. THAT is a more helpful thought.

One of my daughters has been moving to her first apartment — a messy process that has proved instructive for me. Her father (dh) says his heart is broken, and he took her out and bought her a new queen sized mattress and box springs. But, hey, she’s 23 years old! I think it’s time! I find myself reflecting on my own initial move out of my childhood home. Here’s a few thoughts:

  • People thought I was old when I moved (20, but my siblings fled at 17 and 18). They also called me “an old maid.” (I was 20!)
  • My stuff fit in my little car (a Datsun B210).
  • I first moved into a bedroom in my aunt’s house, “in town,” and then shared a duplex with three other girls for a short time. My first actual apartment, about a year later, cost $175 per month to rent, which was the same amount as my car payment. (Of course, I made about $700 per month…but my daughter doesn’t make a whole lot more than that.)
  • My aunt Aronda lent me a black and white TV. My aunt Darlene gave me a picture to hang on the wall. I bought a brand new bed, queen sized, with a brass headboard. I also bought a set of stoneware, which if I’m remembering right, cost $30, and was purchased at a hardware store. I had NO pots and pans, and for a few years, that is what I asked for at Christmas.)
  • In fact, I had nothing in my refrigerator. I sometimes didn’t eat in the evening, or I’d have a can of mandarin orange slices.
  • The phone plugged into the wall and cost something like $11 per month. I called home rarely, as long distance cost extra.
  • The first evening in the new apartment (this was in Longview, Washington, by the way), I put all of my new dishes in the cupboards, my clothes in the dresser drawers and closet, and I was 100% moved in. (I also remember that I had very few clothes — like one pair of jeans, one jacket…a WHOLE different world from my daughter’s.)

Yes, my daughter’s experience is wholly different. But what’s instructive for me is how MESSY her process is. On Saturday, her dad stood in the hallway and fretted. Can’t you help her? he asked me several times. But she didn’t want help. She was perfectly happy with it being messy.

THIS is my big insight. (Stop reading if you already know this!)

It IS messy. (It’s ALL messy!) Let it be messy. Stop fighting the messiness. Do not use the messiness as an excuse. Do your work anyway. My daughter shoved things in boxes and carted them to the new apartment and dumped them into her bedroom. (Her roommate seemed to be doing the same.) She spread things all over. She smiled and hummed. She didn’t stop. (She’s still moving.) She didn’t worry or fuss. She just kept doing small things until it was time for her to go to work for her evening shift. She seems to be operating on the img_0183assumption that it will eventually fall into place, and there isn’t any reason to worry or fuss. Small steps.

I will refrain from making any political comment here (the world is a mess — but what is YOUR work? What is the smallest possible component you can accomplish right now?). I have absolute faith, however, that my daughter will accomplish her move, and that she will put her posters up and unpack her boxes … and all of it. “Adulting,” she calls it. Grinning.

It occurs to me, too, that a lot of my family life has been this messy — my “ideal vision” of having children had to be thrown out the window before I could have actual children. I haven’t followed anyone’s tidy script, ever. I felt that I had to work full time (or dh thought I had to). I couldn’t give up my dream of being a writer. And of course I have written, but what I’m realizing is that my dreams of perfection — writing the “instant classic,” the award-winning novel, for instance — has remained out of my reach.

What if, instead, I embraced the imperfection of this process? What if I let go of my list of “I wants” (which seem to be thinly disguised “I can’ts) and let it (the novel, for instance) be whatever it is? What if I just wrote it? In her memoir, Still Writing, Dani Shapiro talks about a friend who, when asked what she’s writing, says, “A short, bad book.”

What if I were writing a short, bad, wholly imperfect book?




How many irons are there in your fire?

irons2I found this image at And Today’s Idiom Is…,  a blog for non-native English speakers. It strikes me as an excellent excuse for a blog. Meanwhile, I’m trying to remember what my excuse–er, purpose–is.

In 2016 I spent an inordinate amount of time reading helpful books. Books about habits and writing and books about writers and their habits. Books about creativity and eating right, too, and books about parenting teenagers and living with Alzheimer’s. Books such as  Peak and You Are a Badass and Fire Up Your Writing Brain. 

As an aside, an especially helpful book was The INFJ Writer, by Lauren Sapala. (Her advice applies to any NF, which translates to intuitive-feeling, not just INFJs, and I suspect it may apply to non-writers as well as writers. One message Sapala pushes is, to paraphrase her, “You are not weird. You are just you.”)

In 2016 I used up an inordinate amount of my journal pages (page after page after page) on writing and rewriting my goals (“drilling down,” as one writer put it). Has all of this reading about and scribbling of goals helped? Well, sort of. I hired a piano teacher. I hired a professional organizer to help me declutter (phase two about to be taken on). I lost a little weight. I got my brother to visit my mother (twice). I hung in there with my teenager when the going felt pretty damn tough. I submitted poetry to 50 different venues.

What do I want now?

I want to have fewer irons in the

So how do I reconcile blogging, writing and sending out poems (and compiling a new manuscript), short stories, novels needing reworked or completion…not to mention church committees, occasional teaching gigs, and familial roles?

I have an idea. (It does not necessarily involve either coffee or wine.) I’ll be back with more in a day or so.




inaugural poetry


Today I’m attempting to hunker down and work on poetry — all day. What I keep finding myself thinking of, however, being distracted by, is how very very differently some people I love dearly see the world, from how I see it. The publications I read are not reporting jubilantly on the inauguration. Rather, there’s a keening lament, generally, for ethical leadership, for the dream of universal health care, for fair and equal public education, for Civil Rights. The only publications I see skewering Democrats are those displayed at the check out stand at the grocery store (disconcerting enough). So, I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. When I’m at my best, I would like to understand, in fact, I rather think that’s the poet’s job — to understand.

So, since those people aren’t here with me, I’ll share three things from my recent reading. First, a conversation between writer Marilynne Robinson and President Barack Obama from The New York Review of Books. I would also like to urge you to visit Loren Webster’s blog, In a Dark Time…The Eye Begins to See, for a look at some poetry by Naomi Shihab Nye, plus (if you scroll down) pictures of the natural world that are always able to lift my spirits. Loren’s blog title, all by itself (a quote from Theodore Roethke) reminds me of one path toward insight.

And, finally, a re-press from The Poetry Department…aka The Boynton Blog. This site will link you to another site, which has a video of a reading at the Library of Congress by poet Elizabeth Alexander. It begins thus:

Poetry will not be part of today’s inauguration ceremonies, but you can learn more about Poetry and the Presidential Inauguration on the Library of Congress website. And, of course, you can b…

Source: inaugural poetry

Contemplation and Action

P1050692I spent today hanging out with a very bad cold, and reading until my eyes burned. Here’s Parker Palmer on the importance of contemplation and its place in the world — not simply for “intellectuals,” but for everyone:

“Rightly understood, contemplation and action are standard features of ordinary, everyday life. Our contemplative action may be raising a child, making things with wood, delivering mail, managing a company, operating a computer, volunteering to feed the hungry, writing a book. Our active contemplation may involve staring out the window, grieving a painful loss. Whatever our action, it can express and help shape our souls and our world. Whatever our contemplation, it can help us see the reality behind the veils. Contemplation and action are not high skills or specialties for the virtuous few. They are the warp and weft of human life, the interwoven threads that form the fabric of who we are and who we are becoming.” (18-19)

So I’m fighting that weird (illness-induced) feeling of being “helpless and hopeless.” Not just a political malaise.

Thinking of what to do next.

Fifteen minutes, three days…

779hourglassOver the past couple of months I’ve been doing some radical rethinking of how I eat. Long story short, I suspect that I’ve got something going on with inflammation, and I would like to get to the bottom of it. I won’t try to get you to subscribe to anything I’m reading or experimenting with, as I’m very far from being a health coach, but my personal strategy has two parts: first, to try making a small change here and there and, second, to stick to it long enough that I can notice how I feel.

My tried-and-true strategy of “keeping it small” is working for me. I’ve read in numerous books, for instance, that Americans eat too many grains and it wouldn’t hurt to eat less of them. So I’ve given up eating grains for breakfast (I’ve cut back or eliminated them temporarily at other meals, too, just not so religiously). I did not take this on imagining that I will do it forever, just that maybe I’d try it for a few days, maybe a few weeks…and see what happens. Of course it’s more trouble to fry up veggies and eggs for breakfast than it is to pour a bowl of cereal, but I told myself, “It’s only 15 minutes” (fewer than 15, as it turns out), and so far, so good.

I am also experimenting with keeping sugar out of my mouth — at least anything that is deliberately sugary. The first day or so was the hardest, and I tried telling myself that I wouldn’t eat it just now (even setting my phone timer for 15 minutes on at least one occasion), but I could have it later if I still wanted it. Nope, didn’t want it after all.

Fifteen minutes, three days. Those are the two magic numbers for me.

This experiment began back in November, got interrupted by the holidays, continued only sporadically (an ineffective system for me), and has now gotten back on track. What I find is that an initial, very small commitment (as little as 15 minutes) gets me on track, and if I can keep plodding along, then after the first 3 days my cravings subside. I don’t want sugar if I’m not eating sugar. I was sure that my cereal with almond milk and fruit was the healthiest breakfast I could muster, but after a few days, again, I find that it isn’t that big a deal to get out a frying pan and the olive oil.

It works for writing, too.

If you want to write, then the key is to get started. You can write (or stare at a blank page) for 15 minutes to start with. You can write a list. You can write a table of contents. You can write one sentence. You can write ten sentences, each beginning with If I could write I would write a poem/story/novel/essay about.. Or I want to write about… You could describe a character, or a real person.

If you’re really, really stuck, you could try listing your excuses and responding to them.

CAM00264What I have found in years and years of thinking of myself as a writer — and dealing with the constant interruptions that have come from working at other jobs, going to school, writing stuff (like college papers) that I didn’t want to write, having a family, etc., etc., etc., is that —

  1. no matter how busy I am I can always take a 15 minute break to write, and
  2. on the third or fourth day of committing myself to a course, I break through.

15 minutes. 3 days.

New Year’s Resolutions are over-rated. Don’t resolve to write this year. But try writing for 15 minutes today. And then try it again tomorrow. If you’re not enjoying it by the time you get through a few days, then — by all means — stop.

And if you want to read another blogger’s strategies for making a change, Steve Pavlina suggests what he calls “The 30-Day Trial.”

A Dog’s Life


I know this should say “Happy New Year,” but it’s the picture I have on hand.

Having just finished reading Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home (see the Washington Post review here), which is all about friendship and death and dogs, I am in a doggy kind of mood. Additionally, last night I made a midnight run to Arlington to pick up daughter #3 and I took Pabu with me, so my Tibetan Terrier (that smart and sensitive lad) and I spent an hour and a half hanging out in close quarters together. Daughter #3 (who never seems especially glad to see me) was glad to see Pabu, and I was happy.

It takes so little to make me happy. And so much.

Then, this morning, I came across this blog, Musing: A Laid Back Lit Journalwhich originates from Parnassus, the indie-bookstore in Nashville, Tenn., owned by author Ann Patchett, et al. The dog-theme continues there (see their greeting card on Dec. 20), but also some political musings from my tribe members, and book recommendations. I thought I’d share it all with you.