The Lives of the Heart

lives-of-the-heartWhen I was getting an MFA in poetry, one of my professors admonished us to take on more complex subject matter. One doesn’t write about moons and hearts,” he said. But in her 1997 interview with The Atlantic, Jane Hirshfield offered some counter-wisdom. It’s an interview I have reread many times, and it seems to me that Valentine’s Day is a good day to share it with you.

Here’s an excerpt; for the full article, click on the link above.

It’s also true that for some years a central task in my life has been to try to affirm the difficult parts of my experience; that attempt is what many of the heart poems address. It’s easy to say yes to being happy, but it’s harder to agree to grief and loss and transience and to the fact that desire is fathomless and ultimately unfillable. At some point I realized that you don’t get a full human life if you try to cut off one end of it, that you need to agree to the entire experience, to the full spectrum of what happens.
-Jane Hirshfield

Jeanne Lohmann, 1923-2016

barn-in-snowI went searching this morning for a list of poet Jeanne Lohmann’s books to recommend to a friend, and learned that she recently died. I don’t know whether to be sad or to rejoice that the world got to share this woman’s light for such a long time.

Some years ago a poem of mine, “Such Good Work,” was a co-winner of the Jeanne Lohmann prize, and as a consequence I was invited to read my work for Olympia Poetry Network. I met Jeanne, who was then 80+ and bought several of her books. OPN has invited me back twice as their feature — and both times it was a head-first plunge into the poetry mosh pit — such a wild and great group of people to read for and with.

c80907363e0feb56a1c420bfe550b878Here’s a poem reprinted in the Oly-Arts obituary:

“Questions Before Dark” is a 2002 Lohmann poem reprinted on, where her voice may be heard reading two other poems:

Day ends, and before sleep
when the sky dies down, consider
your altered state: has this day
changed you? Are the corners
sharper or rounded off? Did you
live with death? Make decisions
that quieted? Find one clear word
that fit? At the sun’s midpoint
did you notice a pitch of absence,
bewilderment that invites
the possible? What did you learn
from things you dropped and picked up
and dropped again? Did you set a straw
parallel to the river, let the flow
carry you downstream?

How’s that working for you?

lucy-5-centsRemember Dr. Phil? When he was popular, my daughters were small and I was still watching Scooby Doo and Rugrats, but his tagline, “How’s that working for you?” was everywhere.

But this is what I do, and this is how I do it — anytime you defended your practice (in childrearing, in work, in friendships, in getting to the gym), someone was bound to say, “How’s that working for you?”

When I talk with other writers, they often get defensive. “But that’s not how I work.” “I can’t write every day.” “I have to be inspired before I can write.”

If that is working for you, then you should stick with it. I advocate writing every day, but if you can write only when you’re inspired, and you are getting poems written, and manuscripts completed, if you have finished work that you are sending out, then you should stick with your current habits and inclinations. You can also honor where you are in the process. Maybe you’re in the early stages, when you need to mull things over for a long time. Maybe for you that looks like taking long walks or baking cakes.

But if your current practice is not getting you what you want, then it’s time to tinker with it.

If you don’t write every day, try writing every day. Pick an arbitrary length of time (3o days?) and a length of time you can commit to keeping your butt in the chair (BIC, as Jane Yolen says).

If you usually don’t share your work, try sharing it. Go to an open mike, or send three poems or a short prose piece to a journal. (Check New Pages or The Review Review for venues.) Or do both. Just try it.

If you don’t have a writing group (“I have to write alone”) find one. I’m sure they’re advertised mindingthemusesomewhere (Craig’s List? check your local library?). Find one or create one. Read Writing Alone or With Others or Minding the Muse for more ideas.

If you usually wait for inspiration to strike you, try seeking it out instead. Buy a book of exercises and actually do them. Read the sorts of poems or stories you would like to write. Read one poem and write it out in your notebook. What moves could you make that would be similar? How can your moves be radically different?

If you usually write at home, try writing at a coffee shop or at a library. If you usually sit in a chair with your feet up and your notebook on your lap (my bad habit), try sitting at a desk. If you write on a computer, try writing in a notebook (and vice versa).

Experiment. See what works.




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.