Guest Post: Barbara Crooker, Writing Abroad

Right now, I’m getting ready for an international artist residency, at the Moulin á Nef, Auvillar, France.  This studio is owned by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), where I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of previous writing residencies.  As I’m beginning to think about organizing and packing, I thought I’d use this blog post to talk about how one goes about planning for this type of residency.

Right off the bat, the biggest difference (for me, anyway) is that I won’t be planning to take any books along.  I’m of the school that thinks that 90% of my job as a writer is to be a reader, and yet I won’t be taking any of the piles of books and journals that are at my feet right now. A hazard waiting to be tripped over, because I don’t want to incur that $200 baggage overweight fee. So I’ll be traveling lightly, relying on the serendipity of the books that are in the little hallway library outside the studios. Last time when I was here (three years ago), I stumbled  across a book by Fidelma Cook (an unknown author to me), and this poem came out of something I read in her book:



Why would you want to strip off at our age?
Mingle all that sagging, crepey skin with another’s greying flesh?
French Leave, Fidelma Cook
Well, why would you not?  If the lights are dim and the candles are lit,
surely this old skin will do, the two of us rubbing along slowly like freight
trains chugging up a grade.  So your stomach’s not a ridge of washboard abs
or tablettes de chocolat as they say here; mine’s a puddle of warm crème brûlée.
Pears ripen slowly as they concentrate their juice.  Brie slumps in the shell
of its rind.  And both of them, and all of me, are absolument délicieuse.


Another part of traveling lightly means no printer. My usual method of writing is to do a number of drafts by hand, then move to the computer, and I print out copies of all versions. I often find, in revision, that I need to go back a few versions to find the right words or the right lines. But when I was in Auvillar previously, I learned that I could scrap my usual method and edit on the computer, something I didn’t think I could do.  Also, I’m wed to writing on lined yellow legal pads. Which I found out do not exist in France. They use grid paper, in much smaller notebooks  I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to write on them (Am I superstitious? I guess I’m superstitious), but learned that I could be flexible. Which is, I think, a key to being able to travel, and to use this gift of time wisely.

Last time, I went with a project in mind, which was to do a series of ekphrastic poems based on the Fauves, especially Matisse. I found that having a project gave my work some structure, which seemed to prime the pump and get other poems started. Here’s one of the Matisse poems:



~Henri Matisse
The last line of the poem is also Matisse’s
“From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands
I knew this was my life.  I threw myself into it like
a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”
Henri Matisse
This hillside’s the shade of grape soda,
lawn an ooze of electric jaundice,
and the sky’s a violet slither. The red,
blue, and green trees are dancing, supple
and sinuous, and the leaves are singing, a riot
of light.  He squeezed out red-orange like plastic
explosives.  Painting is an act of belief.

As I began to work on the ekphrastic poems, it occurred to me that I might also create a section where I attempted, in words, to do some of the wild and crazy things that the Fauves did with paints. I called these poems “word salads,” and many of them ended up in form. This one uses abecedarian end rhyme:


after Dorianne Laux’s “Men”
It’s tough being a woman, feeling you’re an object to be bought,
an elusive quarry, something to be chased and caught,
when you know you’re more than that.  So pull me a draught,
Charlie, give me something dark and frothy.  Wars have been fought
for less—   I came in wondering what a girl’s got
to do to get herself noticed?  I mean, I’m so hot,
I could melt neon.  You want my number?  Well, jot
it down, big boy.  I won’t call you.  I have a karaoke slot
at nine pm; I’m thinking a Madonna medley will do.  Lots
of water under this dam.  I want to be a player, not a mascot.
I want something bathed in dark chocolate, with a nougat
center.  I want a lobster in my steaming pot,
champagne on ice, and two chairs by a wrought
iron table on a terrace in France.  Whoever sought
the fountain of youth can forget it.  The lies the movies taught?
They’re a crock, a foolish dream, a vicious plot.
Life isn’t fair, you’ve got to play your cards, no matter what.
I could have been Dean of Women, a cover girl.  An exot-
ic dancer at a go-go bar.  Or married to a guy with a yacht.
But I’m not.  So pour me another shot of Jack, O Great Zot.

Writing in form and writing ekphrastic poems imposed a sense of discipline on the residency, but I also wanted to leave myself open to serendipity. So when, in my daily visits to the boulangerie, I noticed that there were a number of desserts with religious names, I decided to a) try them all (tough job, but someone had to do it) and b) incorporate them in a poem:


Blessed be the breadmakers of la belle France
who rise before dawn to plunge their arms
into great tubs of dough.  Blessed be the yeast
and its amazing redoubling.  Praise the nimble
tongues of those who gave names to this plenty:
baguette, boule, brioche, ficelle, pain de campagne.
Praise the company they keep, their fancier cousins:
croissant, mille feuille, chausson aux pommes.
Praise flake after golden flake.  Bless their saintly
counterparts:  Jésuit, religieuse, sacristain, pets de nonne.
Praise be to the grain, and the men who grew it.  Bless
the rising up, and the punching down.  The great
elasticity.  The crust and the crumb.  Bless
the butter sighing as it melts in the heat.
The smear of confiture that gilds the plane.
And bless us, too, O my brothers,
for we have sinned, and we are truly hungry.


Picture of French desserts

These poems ended up in my new book, Les Fauves (C&R Press, 2017). And now, I’m thrilled to say I’ll be going back again in a few weeks. I’m doing an hour of French lessons every day, I have my passport, my plane ticket, and my packing list (yes, I’m obsessive, and I keep packing lists for all my travels, whether they’re family camping, a beach vacation, or a writing residency).  I’m hoping to do more ekphrastic work while I’m there, and so am taking several art calendars along.  I’m also hoping to do more poems in form, perhaps the Golden Shovel, perhaps half-rhymed couplets, perhaps embedded sonnets.  I know the muse doesn’t appear magically; you have to be at your desk (or at a café, or down by the river, with a notebook) to greet her. But whatever happens, I know this stay is going to be magical.

Guest Post, Barbara Crooker: A Room of My Own

Barbara's RoomFirst, let me tell you about the room I don’t have, the one at home. I’m the mother of a son with autism, now 32, and my work space is a corner of the dining room, where I can be at the computer and still see the short bus when it arrives. My “desk” is a book bag, highly portable. My actual books are in book cases scattered throughout the house. And my work day is fragmented, too—we have to provide transportation for him now that he’s out of school, plus there are household tasks, doctor appointments, trips to the gym. . . .I’ve got a yard full of perennials and a vegetable garden which need my attention. My work day is also rife with interruptions—the doorbell, the phone, my beloved husband wandering in to read me items from the newspaper (which I’ve already read). And there are the other parts of caregiving: making up med sets, running a behavior modification program, cooking gluten and dairy-free meals; in general, I “run” things— But I also try to engage in the written word, even if it’s just reading, every day. I find it a small miracle that I’ve actually written anything at all, even though at this point I’ve published close to 900 poems. . . .


So, every eighteen months, I try to go away to a colony, specifically The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, in Amherst, VA. It’s competitive; I don’t always get in, plus sometimes there are things “in real life” that make getting away impossible. But right now, here I am, in sweet Virginia, on a May morning; paradise restored. It’s nothing fancy; the studios are basic, austere, even, in a repurposed dairy farm. I believe my room formerly housed cows. The outside is cinder block; the floors are poured cement. But there’s a twin bed (you can sleep in your studio, but I prefer to walk back to the residence at night); a “distressed” (many writers have put butt to chair here) but comfortable leather arm chair and ottoman; a large desk, big enough to hold my printer, laptop, slant desk, and then some; two small tables; a book case; and two lamps. And four big windows with a view of the hedgerow, the dirt road that winds through the campus, a meadow of wild grasses and daisies, and the Blue Ridge Mountains stretching beyond.


Lately, I’ve been reading blogs about “how to keep going after the MFA,” which leave me puzzled. We’re writers; writers write. Or they construct manuscripts, which is going to be my primary task here, to put, not as Coleridge said, “Best words, best order” (his definition of a poem), but “best poem, best order” for two book length manuscripts. If I finish these projects, I plan to take a look at where the poems that don’t fit in either of these manuscripts are going, what the themes are, etc., with an eye to another book down the road. And I’d like to write some new poems, as well.


All these days, stretching out before me. It’s amazing, when you take food prep (planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning up afterward) out of the equation how many hours there are in a day. I could hardly wait to get here. I roll up my sleeves and begin.


Here’s a poem I wrote after a previous residency:




Wrapping up a residency, new work done,

car packed with poems, computer, books.

There’s a bluebird on the tree limb over my head,

white belly, orange throat, blue back.

His only job is to be beautiful.

For weeks here, there’s been nothing but work,

no jobs or families or domestic duties, not a pan

to wash or a meal to prepare. We have reverted

to childhood, trade items from our lunchboxes.

Play Truth or Dare at night. Put on plays,

read each other stories. On warm days,

we sit in the sun and drink lemonade.

No one tells us to clean up our rooms or our prose.

We write more and more. Whole forests have died

for our work. Each day, we are closer to capturing

beauty, though it flies out of reach.

I’d like to sit here forever, on the Pasternak bench,

and try to decide which is lovelier, the pink

dogwood or the white, write a few

more lines, watch the high white clouds scroll

on a brilliant blue sky, stay until

the sticky little leaves unfurl

to an audience of waving hands.

I’d like to sit here,

until the cows come home,

or Mother calls us in.

published in New Works Review, 2004

Guest Post, Barbara Crooker: On Rejection

rejected-1238221Recently, I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s (“Eat, Pray, Love”) new book on creativity, called “Big Magic.”  In a chapter on resistance, she tells the story of how, starting out, she got a great rejection letter from the late fiction journal Story, written by the editor-in-chief (something to cheer about right there), who said she really liked Gilbert’s story, but that the ending fell a bit short, and they wouldn’t be taking it.  Rather than be discouraged, Gilbert was elated, and let’s face it, who among us has not been cheered by an encouraging note (even one penned on a form rejection slip)?  Or, who among us has not had this conversation, the one where we compare rejection notes with another writer?

Back to Gilbert, who fast-forwards a couple of years—now she has an agent. The agent sends the same story out and about, then calls her with good news. The same short story is now going to be published. And guess who’s going to take it? That’s right, the same editor at Story! Who calls Gilbert up a few days later. Gilbert asks her, “You even liked the ending?” and the editor replies, “Of course. I adored the ending.” Which goes to show a couple of things. Maybe this tale has to do with fame and connections—when Gilbert was an unknown and in the slush pile, her work was read differently than when an agent respected in the industry submitted it. Or maybe the Story editor read it after a bad day or when she’d had a fight with her husband, and maybe when the agent submitted it she’d just had good news or the sun was finally shining after days and days of rain. Who knows?

I know the same thing happened to me—an editor, who’d taken at least one poem every time I submitted to his journal (and this was a journal I admired) appeared in another magazine with me. He sent me a note (before the internet—a note is something handwritten on paper, put in an envelope, sealed with a stamp) to tell me how very much he liked my poem in there, with one caveat. Why hadn’t I sent it to him first? I should have known he’d like it. Which sent me back to my 3 x 5 cards, where I tracked submissions (remember, this was back in the ancient of days), and where I found out, guess what? I did. His journal was the first place I’d sent it to, and he’d turned it down.

What can we take away from both of these stories, Gilbert’s and mine? I think it’s this: all we can do is write, as best as we can, each time we sit down to the paper/typewriter/keyboard. That’s the only thing we can control. The rest is luck and circumstance—the right journal or the right publisher, at the right time. That’s where things get random. We might send THE best poem ever about, say, kumquats, only to submit to a place that just used a Best American Poem on kumquats, and that’s it for them in this lifetime. And there’s no way we can ever know this. So all we can do is keep trying. I liken the whole submission process to a bizarre game of badminton. Poems go out, poems come back. But the racquet’s in my hand, and it’s up to me to hit the metaphoric birdie back over the net. Keep trying. Keep trying.

Guest Post, Barbara Crooker: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem

Barbara Crooker

  1. 1.  A poem is a journey, not a destination. If you think you can see where your poem is going, start there. Don’t be in a rush to finish the poem. The world isn’t starving for want of poems. The world is starving for want of good poems.
  2. Write through the body; use your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin. Think of the image as the driving engine of the poem.
  3. Don’t be afraid to engage the heart: “If you don’t risk sentimentality, you’re not in the ballpark.” (Richard Hugo) Dive deeper into the wreck.
  4. Banish the internal editor, the one that says, “This isn’t any good. This has been done before. This is boring.” Keep your pen moving; let that pony run. Don’t impose your will on the poem; the poem knows what it wants to become. Be open to everything that comes your way.
  5. Think of the line length as a unit of breath. Read out loud when you’re revising. Find your best line rhythmically, and try and cast the other lines in a similar rhythm. Experiment with regular meter. Try syllabics.
  6. If you’re using rhyme, mix it up with off-rhymes, near rhymes, slant rhymes. Don’t invert sentence structure just to get a rhyme in, and avoid “poetic” phrasing. (Avoid the word “poetic!”)  Fall in love with sounds. And the sound of sounds.
  7. Go for concrete Anglo-Saxon words rather than the fancier Latinate ones.
  8. Try using enjambment; break expectations.
  9.  “The road to hell is paved with adverbs,” (Stephen King) and I’d add adjectives to that advice. Nouns and verbs are your power words.
  10.  Always be open to revision. “Revision is not just cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.” (William Matthews) Something to try: cut the first three and last three lines of a draft. Think about how you throw out the eggshells in order to make an omelet. Remember less is more. Less is always more.
  11. Try changing the tense of the poem. Try changing the pronoun of the speaker. Notice the different effect you get between “I said / you said / she said / the woman said.”
  12. “Don’t ask yourself if the poem pleases you. Ask instead, “Have I done everything this poem requires of me?” (William Dickey)
  13. The poem on the page will never measure up to the poem in your head. Learn to live with this.