Guest Post, Faye Rapoport DesPres: The Lost Words

I haven’t written a “creative” word in a month. That might be an odd way to start a blog post about writing, but it’s the truth—and wherever there is truth, there is a puzzle for a writer to examine.

I can point to several reasons why I haven’t been writing, of course. Aren’t there always reasons? First, I just returned from a two-week trip to Alaska, so I was away for two weeks of the month in question. Second, every moment of the two weeks before the trip felt busy with preparations and tinged with anxiety—after all, my husband and I would be traveling on four flights, a train, a bus, two small boats, and a medium-sized cruise ship.

A third reason goes like this: feeling relieved at the opportunity to disconnect from the Internet, I left behind my laptop, which would have been difficult to tote on and off planes and from one place to another on the ground or at sea. I did pack a small, handmade notebook from a Tanzanian craft shop that employs people who live with physical challenges. I thought the notebook’s history would motivate me to write, but its pages remained blank throughout the trip.

All of these reasons sound good when I write them down, but the truth is I can’t explain the lack of writing. I have never before traveled to such an inspiring place without writing a single word while I was there. Each day I thought about writing (and I did dictate journal entries into my iPhone), but day after day I avoided that little notebook and wondered, in the back of my mind, why I was doing it.

Seal on Rock

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

What I was doing was taking photographs. My camera, I’d always known, was coming with me to Alaska regardless of how awkward it would be to carry it. From the moment our plane landed in an Anchorage flooded with daylight at 11 o’clock at night, I snapped photo after photo after photo. I captured images of snow-covered mountains, of rivers carrying glacial silt through scenic valleys, of seagulls chasing the spouts of humpback whales, and of seals resting on ice caps recently calved from retreating glaciers. I took photos of a wolf tailing a grizzly bear across a mountainside, of a herd of caribou on a hilltop, of 20,310-foot-tall Denali on a rare sunny day. And the bald eagles! I had only seen four in the wild before this trip, but in Alaska, the sky and the trees and even the rooftops seemed filled with them, and I couldn’t stop clicking at their magnificence.

A number of writers I admire also take photographs. As I captured image after image in Alaska, I wondered about this impulse. Why was I obsessed with my camera, while the little notebook languished, unopened, in my suitcase?

Eagle with Wings Open

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Somewhere between Anchorage and Denali and Seward and Skagway and Hoonah and Ketchikan, it occurred to me that my goal with a camera is pretty much the same as my goal with a pen. I’m trying to capture the world around me in all its beauty, its glory, its sadness, and its grit so that I can save and relive the moments, and then share them with others. Like any writer or photographer or artist in any media, I can’t recreate the world as it actually exists. I can only interpret it through the filter that is—for better or worse—me. A bald eagle exists in all its magnificence in and of itself. All I can do is try to capture its essence and the wonder I feel when I see it. Then I can show it to others with an unspoken question: “Do you see what I see?” I want someone else to see it, too, so I can share the experience—and also so I’m not alone in that wonder.

With creative writing (whether it’s fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or dramatic writing) the process, I think, is much the same. The writer observes something or feels something or experiences an event, and then captures, frames, interprets, recreates, or re-imagines it based on a personal understanding and sensibility. Through this process, the story is infused with the meaning the writer attaches to it. Finding the right sharpness or clarity or beauty in the delivery is what requires click after click after click of the pen or keyboard.

Of course, there is one central difference between photography and writing. Photographs are visual images made up of (or at least based on) shapes and colors and light that exist outside the photographer, out there in the world at the moment when the shutter is snapped. How the photographer perceives those images and frames and interprets them with a camera is, of course, the art. Written texts, on the other hand, are born of observations of the outside world that become stories when they merge with the ideas, memories, and imagination in the mind of the writer. The texts won’t exist unless the writer makes use of that complicated, beautiful, difficult, and (for me) often dreaded tool: words.

Words. There are so many words! And writers have to choose just the right ones every time! And the choice of which words to use makes all the difference.

South Sawyer Glacier

Photo: Faye Rapoport DesPres

Sometimes, for me, the words just don’t come. While I was in the great, vast, wild state of Alaska, they eluded me completely. The wilderness was so stunning that words failed me. One definition of the word “stunning,” by the way, is to be “able or likely to make a person senseless or confused.” That is what Alaska did to me. It stunned me. It left me senseless and confused…wordless. But, I have to say, happily, ecstatically so.

Now I am home. Now, as a writer, my job is to make sense of what struck me senseless. The weeks, months, and maybe even years of translation and interpretation through the imperfect filter that is me must begin.

But why? Why not leave Alaska to be remembered through the hundreds of photographs I came home with, the eagles and the glaciers, the mountains and the waterfalls, the seals and the wolf and the whales? I certainly love the photos, and if I were a better photographer, photos would rightfully be enough.

But for better or worse, I’m a writer. And ever since I was a little girl, all I wanted was to find the right words.

Guest Post, Casey Patrick: Poetry Won’t Get a Man to the Moon

If you studied poetry in high school, you may have not-so-fond memories of being asked to endlessly dissect Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or perhaps William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Maybe your teacher asked you to extract a poem’s rich symbolism, to explain its meaning, and maybe the consensus you came to was that all poems are really metaphors for Death or Love or Other Big Concepts. (I remember one particularly painful English class where someone drew a box around each stanza of Williams’s wheelbarrow poem and proclaimed that they were, in fact, shaped like wheelbarrows: symbolism of the highest order.)

Maybe, despite the occasionally asinine discussions, this sparked your enduring love for poetry. But did your English teacher ever talk about the importance of poetry? Did he or she ever stand there and reassure you that one day you’d be grateful you read Frost, the way your math teacher insisted that you’d one day thank her for teaching you algebra? It seems to me that the tendency to dismiss poetry as eccentric or irrelevant starts with the way we interact with it in school.

UntitledOf course, most of us encounter poetry long before we’re asked to study it. We grow up reading Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss or other rhyming books. We grow up learning chants at summer camp or rhyming our names in an endless loop (Casey, Casey, Bo-Basey, Banana-fana…) or just making up nonsense words to pass the time. We learn to talk and read by fumbling with language, by stretching it to its limit, which is the beginning of poetry. But by the time we get to school, poetry becomes just another topic on the agenda, a vehicle to teach students the definitions of diction and tone and mood.

The way we talk about poetry affects how students will think about its value, and it’s too often discounted. After I taught a week-long poetry camp recently, I handed out an evaluation to the students, who were all around high-school age. Though all of the students said the class helped them improve their creative writing, only some of them said it would also help them be a better writer in school. Having seen firsthand how reading and writing poetry can improve students’ language skills, the disconnect between these two answers is frustrating. But I don’t blame the students; rather, it’s an example of the way poetry is presented in our schools and consistently undervalued in our culture. We don’t talk about it as a useful skill, when in fact it’s an incredibly useful tool to expand vocabulary and introduce students to many different voices and topics. (And for a perspective on the undervaluing of poetry in monetary terms, I recommend Jessica Piazza’s wonderful project and companion blog, Poetry Has Value).

Although teaching is not my profession, I’ve had the chance to teach creative writing to various populations over the last several years, including juvenile delinquents, elementary school students, and adult writers. Still, I don’t claim to be an expert. But the power of language and writing is so clear to me that I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we gave poetry a little more attention in the classroom, if we celebrated its ability to craft something beautiful and startling out of the same words we use every day. In my experience, teachers are often surprised by the ways poetry can be tied into other academic subjects. Plan a lesson on cinquain and students get practice with identifying words as nouns, adjectives, or verbs. Plan a lesson on haiku and students get practice counting syllables. Teach a lesson on William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just To Say” and even third graders can identify the irony. So why don’t we value poetry in the same way we value multiplication tables or the timeline of the Revolutionary War?

Despite the fact that studies have shown many students are reading below grade level, particularly black and Hispanic students, as well as students from low-income backgrounds, teachers often skip over covering poetry completely, especially in the younger grades. It’s often the case that they don’t know enough about poetry to feel comfortable teaching it. (When I’ve visited classrooms to teach, that’s the most common thing I hear.) But it’s also a wider problem that stems from the culture of constant testing in our education system. If no one is demonstrating the value poetry can have for students, teachers are apt to see it as frivolous, especially when there are “important” (and testable) skills like math and science to cover.

True, poetry won’t get a man to the moon. But what good are the equations that get him there if he can’t communicate clearly what he’s seeing once he lands? Poetry can be as important as the five-paragraph essay to the way we teach students about language if we’d only let it. As Williams famously wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

Intern Post, David Klose: Up on the Mountain (Writer’s Conference Series)

If you are considering attending a writing conference sometime in the future, I hope this finds you well. Maybe you have heard of Bread Loaf. Maybe not. I hadn’t heard of it until one day, two fall semesters ago, when my Creative Writing teacher at Mesa Community College told me, in that way he always expressed his opinion, as if he were open to hearing your objections, not because they were valid, but because he believed there was value in standing up for yourself, that if I wanted to be a serious writer then I should attend a writing conference and if I was going to attend a writing conference, it might as well be Bread Loaf.

The name, which stands out in that vaguely preppy sense, of something old and prestigious and yet quite silly, comes from Bread Loaf Mountain, named because it was shaped like a loaf of bread. It is 89 years old and an off-shoot of the ridiculously small (my high school had just as many students) Middlebury College in Vermont.

I had reservations about attending. First, and sadly foremost, I have never felt comfortable around other writers. I find myself secretly hating them and wishing, when they talk of things like theme and the occasion of telling, that they would shut up or, at the very least, change the topic to something less troubling like religion or politics. Second, though a very close second, attending Bread Loaf, as I was invited to attend, sans fellowship, would clear out my savings and leave me broke. Third, going would mean stepping down from my Middle Management position at the company where I’ve worked for the past 5 years, because, of course, Bread Loaf dates coincided with blacked out days on the store manager’s calendar, meaning no time-off allowed.

I am telling you this up front, so, as you read my mixed thoughts, you will still believe me when I say that, if you love to write, then you should do whatever it is you can do to attend a writing conference like Bread Loaf.

Let’s go over the facts: To attend Bread Loaf it will costs around $3000 and that will include just room and board and your tuition through Middlebury College. That’s for your workshop, whether it be in Fiction, Poetry or Nonfiction, and for your shared room up on the Mountain in one of the Houses. You can, as I did, choose to stay off campus at a nearby Inn (there are two of them, one about 8 miles away and another about 16 miles away) or even look up cabins that are listed at a discount rate for Bread Loafers. If I had inquired a little sooner, I would have been able to stay in a four bedroom house with a full kitchen for only one hundred dollars a night.

To get to Bread Loaf, I drove North out of Burlington for a little over an hour and then passed through Middlebury, almost without realizing it, then drove up to Ripton, a town with one white Lutheran Church (that hosted a play based off of Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth while I was there), an old country store that sold turkey sandwiches wrapped in plastic wrap and worms for fishing, and The Chipmann Inn, where I stayed. After Ripton, you have to just go a little further up the Mountain, past the Homer Noble Farm where Robert Frost stayed before leaving with Homer Nobel’s wife. Then you are there, where the road plateaus and the view opens up.

Bread Loaf

Every other day you go to Workshop. When you are not at Workshop, you can attend craft classes, which cover things such as The Art of the Paragraph and Using Autobiographical Elements in Your Fiction. Every morning you pick up your copy of The Crumb, the Bread Loaf Newsletter, and it tells you what readings and talks are going on that day and who is coming to the Mountain and who is leaving. I got to listen to the editors of the New England Review talk about what they most looked for when accepting a piece of writing (they have to love it). And the preferences of the publishers of the small press Graywolf (they have to love it, and it has to be something they can see other people loving). And I heard from one wise editor, from an organization whose name I unfortunately can’t remember, speak about how he is finding more and more writers who are worrying about their social media presence, their Twitter followers, the way their book cover will be designed, but not worrying half that much about the quality of their work. The work, he said repeatedly, comes first.

Bread Loaf

If you do go to a conference and there is off-conference housing, I do recommend taking that option. I think I would have gone crazy spending 10 days up on the Mountain, surrounded by people like me. I escaped every night with my girlfriend to Middlebury, to one of its two bars that was open past 10. Sometimes I would skip out of Bread Loaf in the middle of the day, growing tired of readings and talks by editors, and we would shop around Middlebury and walk through Middlebury College. You have to leave writing eventually, I think, in order to keep finding things to write about.

After my story was Workshopped, and it was a good Workshop, I got, like everyone else, a one-on-one with my Workshop Leaders.

I met my first Workshop Leader, a woman with long black hair and a hard face, in the Bread Loaf Barn, where the dances were held and the Bar was open every night till 10ish. Because it was cold this summer, there was always a fire in the fireplace, and the night before I had almost fallen asleep there in front of it.

She and I talked about my story briefly. I didn’t have many questions. Then we talked about MFA programs and writers I should read. This was her sixth time teaching at Bread Loaf. She looked around the barn and talked about the stories she had heard in the earlier years of its existence. There was more drinking and sleeping around. A lot of older men writers invited up younger women. She said her favorite story was about Richard Yates, who got drunk or high or both and climbed one of the buildings and had a prophetic vision which ended with him shouting out that he was God.

She smiled and said that for a long time, people joked that it should be called “Bed Loaf.”

My next Workshop Leader was less comfortable talking. He had been that way in Workshop, too. He had good things to say and he would often lead the discussion, but it took him time to find the words and then even more time to find what order to place the words in.

We met out on the front porch of the main office and enjoyed the view, sitting on an old bench that creaked beneath us.

When he spoke, his hands were out in front of his chest and his fingers were tense, as if grasping at some machine with knobs and wires.

He had held a craft class on James Joyce’s use of epiphany in Dubliners; a craft class I had very much wanted to attend, but the time didn’t fit with the rest of my schedule. I have always felt like the epiphanies of my stories are never realized, that my characters are dancing around this great realization that would shatter the lives they had been trying so hard to live. But nothing ever resolved. It was the biggest critique of my story, that I didn’t allow my characters to grow and I should allow them to do more.

He spoke to me about taking time off in between undergrad programs and grad programs, about working a little, traveling a little. The next day was the end of Bread Loaf and I’d fly out with my girlfriend around four in the afternoon. He asked if I had any questions about my story and when I said no, he said “Good. You know what you need, you just need to. . . .” and he went quiet and scrunched up his face and held his hands out in front of his chest and contorted them into something like claws.

It took me nearly an hour to rearrange my luggage to include the books I bought/was given and my carry-on bag was replaced with a broken portable typewriter I bought from a small antique shop in Middlebury. It is still waiting for me to save the sixty dollars it is going to cost to fix it.

Guest Post, Desirae Matherly: Some Say In Ice

Two degrees Fahrenheit, even in the dead of winter, is unusual for East Tennessee. In fact, our city’s school system has closed out of concern for the safety of the children at least twice this winter because of extreme cold, with mornings beginning somewhere near zero. But today, the school is on a two-hour delay, and my eleven-year-old son is indignant that we are walking to the bus stop, given that the precedent has been set for closure just days before. Today is proof that people adapt, and no doubt the school board has finally succumbed to the suspicion that the cold has settled in, and we should simply accept it and get back to work.

Desi Matherly's Some Say In Ice

My son and I are bundled up: layered pants, shirts, two coats each, balaclavas and scarves, gloves. He has grocery bags over his tennis shoes to protect them from the snow and we walk arm-in-arm so he doesn’t slip in the grass beside my steep, icy driveway. I’m wearing the shearling boots and fleece mittens I bought when I lived in Ohio. There I had learned about cold and snow beyond what Tennesseans normally experience. There I had learned that during a “Level 3,” a driver might be arrested if found on the roads for anything other than an emergency. In Ohio, I made my first snow tunnel after the 2003 President’s Day blizzard left us with five-feet-high snowdrifts. In Ohio I saw frozen grass, and pavement glazed with half an inch of ice in January of 1999. And since then, I’ve also seen balmy Decembers, unseasonable sixty-degree January days, and heard thunder cracks in February. Weather events like these remind me to take nothing for granted.

I muse to my son that ours might be an everyday walk to the bus stop for kids in Minnesota, and that we should be glad for the experience, to appreciate our mild winters better. My son isn’t convinced, and merely grumbles, “My face is cold.” He doesn’t remember the Chicago winter, but then, he was five when we left. He doesn’t remember subzero afternoon walks (with windchills of twenty below), to the grocery store after days of being shut inside, or stepping into university buildings to warm up every ten minutes before moving on. After I relocated home to Tennessee, whenever I heard anyone say “it’s cold,” I rolled my eyes dramatically. Eventually I learned to bite my tongue before saying, “When I was in Chicago . . .” and accepted that everyone has his or her superlative account.

Even so, and no doubt because of its proximity to Lake Michigan’s winds, Chicago offers its residents a Biblical experience of winter. Biblical like a curse to painful childbirth; like razed cities and plagues taking firstborns. Biblical like deluges and apocalypses of sundry sorts. The first time I traveled to Boston, I experienced something similar. Walking to the subway with blistering gusts throwing snow into my face, I turned to look at a bareheaded student with what looked like frozen tears on his wind-scalded cheeks. My students and I were walking into the wind at an angle, and one arctic blast made us retreat for a moment of cover, as if we were being shelled. I could see the rail station when I peeked around the corner, so we readjusted our hoods if we had them and soldiered on.

Poet Robert Frost, who lived across the river in Cambridge but died in Boston, knew “enough of hate” to write “that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice.” When Frost was my son’s age, his family moved from San Francisco to New England after the death of his father. Frost took a turn in Michigan too. I’m sure for him all winters were Biblical: a literary metaphor for the ways that human beings lose their memory of safety, security, or warmth, and yet trudge on, with only their faith to guide them. It’s no surprise that in 1940 he bought a house in Miami and spent the rest of his winters there.

Though I like “ice music,” and have claimed that I’d like to attend the annual Ice Music Festival in Geilo, Norway, I doubt I ever will. Watching the instrument makers craft the ice into cellos, horns, or xylophones inspires me, but then the idea of ice is much easier to consider than the reality. How do they play the instruments without shivering? How can anyone listen attentively? Truthfully, I would rather listen to a recording or watch a performance on video. Taking the art of ice further, I realize that “ice hotels” in Scandinavia or Canada–though magical–will never be more than a hoped-for day trip, my nights booked in a brick-and-mortar inn with a fireplace. For most of my adult life, I’ve been fascinated with Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, but I can’t actually imagine booking a trip to any of these places in the winter. I blame so much on my cold nature, my sometimes anemia, my fear of enduring another attack of chilblains. I feel old in the winter, soaking my feet to warm them.

Despite all of this, I’ll admit to enjoying the cold some. When I’m armored against it with wool, or sheltered in a tidy, tea-rich kitchen, I can appreciate the stillness and the solitary beauty that snow brings. I don’t think I could ever live somewhere without a winter, but I used to believe that I could live somewhere without hot, muggy summers. Since then I’ve made my trades. Extremes of temperature and humidity (or its opposite) do nothing but keep me inside all day, a sad animal. Whether I dream of the vernal garden trowel, or the deepening shadows and blue sky hikes of autumn, the transitional seasons still strike me best. To inhabit the climate that calls to one’s nature, and to remain as long as the season welcomes–this seems the very mantra of writers and migratory birds. I look at my weather monitor on my desk and find that in the span of five hours, the temperature has risen thirty degrees to the edge of freezing. I ponder a walk, just before pulling my blanket tighter around my legs and settling in.

Guest Blog Post, Bruce Cohen: Why I Read Poems

Bruce CohenThere are illusive, mysterious, hard to pin down ideas skirting away from us, on the periphery of understanding that cannot be expressed in prose, so next to sideways-glance silence, poetry is the best alternative. When I experience language in a way that forces me to witness disturbing aspects of the world or calms me in the undisturbed limbo outside of all else, or provides me with an insightful glimpse into myself, that insists that I consider the nature of life, I know I’m in the swirling Dust Devil of a real poem. I freely admit, my psychology is such that I am more comfortable being uncomfortable and vice versa as though the two were different, and perhaps they are, because poetry is always making finer and finer paradoxical distinctions. The world is infinitely more complicated and complex and unknowable than we are able to comprehend or articulate, so in those rare moments when I am darkly honest enough, with eyes that are not delusional, poetry is the linguistic vehicle by which I arrive at those almost impossible to grasp fleeting notions, emotions, psychological dilemmas, and vacancies of the heart. There is so much my intellect cannot solve and I am constantly in a state of awe.

I am curious how other people live; I’ve always assumed they are privy to some secret that I am excluded from. For me it is not an illogical leap to say I have no interest in poetry that I understand completely on the first reading, but it must quietly insist that I come back. It must be intellectually intriguing, be flirtatious, politely demanding. Allegedly, there are huge portions of our brains that go unused, untapped, and those are the hemispheres where poetry burrows, reproduces, creates its own microscopic civilizations and builds secret tree forts. Its contains its own logic and laws, both scientific and social, are designed by the citizens of poetry who are so diverse no two are alike, like proverbial snowflakes, but like aliens on a secret mission to earth, we recognize each other but rarely acknowledge one another. That’s why, sometimes, a stranger will offer to buy you a drink in a bar with no apparent ulterior motive. Naturally poetry has its own lingo and the buildings are often invisible and the landscapes change directions according to the seasons (we like to stare at eclipses without cardboard boxes), and the trees go by their first names, and their leaves change color on whim and there are always peepholes in fences and there is virtually no distinction between dreams and objective reality and we can paint with our eyes, our X-Ray eyes, and see what others cannot. Gravity is not a requirement!

What is so euphonious about echoes of sound? Does rhyme make a statement feel truer? Is truth more musical than lies? Is, as I think Frost said, the iamb the voice of God? If you’re reading this you are likely a serious reader of poetry. So, if you were to construct an anthology of your top 20 favorite poems, what would your choices say about you? If someone put a metaphorical gun to your head and demanded you shrink your list to 10, then five, then that solitary one, what would it be, and what would that one poem say about you, your esthetics, your artistic sensibility, who you are in your essence? How does that one poem define you? Perhaps you cannot be defined by one poem. Is your inner self indistinguishable from the poem, as though your hidden voice wrote it? Do you simply recognize yourself in the poem? Are you relieved there’s another human being in the world who feels as out of place as you? Is the poem so like you or so unlike you? Is it something you believe you could have written or something so beyond your artistic ability you could compose for infinity and never come up with that perfect turn of phrase, the way the poet captured that difficult to capture…what is it? My friend says poetry solves everything and I’d like to believe that that’s true. But if poetry is the solution, what is the dilemma? Why do we believe life is so difficult or is life that difficult? Do we even know the right questions? Of course there are horrible atrocities that have made the most religious among us question the very existence of God. Is our world arbitrary or is there some mysterious pattern we are simply not intelligent enough to understand? How does one become comfortable in a world where, clearly, goodness does not always prevail?

The world is so selfish nobody gets to live forever. Is the moment in the poem you love the timelessness, the sense that you can suspend time, that instant when you feel on the verge of understanding the secret to eternal life? But I like poems that make me smirk! So many poems fall short, so short. Maybe they shouldn’t have been read by anyone other than the person writing the poem. Maybe they shouldn’t have even been written. But writing a poem, even a failed poem, makes us feel more included in the world, more in control of our destinies. I hate to admit this, but most of the poems I read in literary journals, and I read a fair amount, leave me wondering what the editor saw in this poem. A poem that falls short for me is an insult and an assault and a salt in the wound of my artistic sensibility. I may as well watch reruns of my favorite sitcoms. I go to poetry to be surprised, awakened if you will, and shocked out of myself so I can find myself. I like poems smarter than I am. I am infinitely curious about the world and would love to understand it a little better. I want to feel like the first one to arrive at a party, before the host is ready, and be the last one to leave, when the hostess is pleading with me, with only a look, to please go home. She’s tired and has a hectic day tomorrow. She might say something she regrets, something she wishes she could take back. Yes, I have worn out my welcome. We are sitting there staring at one another. Her husband is starting to do the dishes, clanging the pots. I have ignored all the subtle and not so subtle clues. So, we open a fresh bottle of wine and begin to tell our life stories, the privately exclusive things we think, that which we have never told anyone before. Those are the poems I like: becoming comfortable in the discomfort, revealing something utterly untapped, never spoken before.

My favorite writers have a distinctive, unmistakably individual voice. I often harp on that point to students, but I have begun to think about voice more in terms of the way writers esoterically think before they censor themselves with the written word. That’s where the poem begins and ultimately where it exists. Aside from the fact that we suffer from odd, egocentric logic, and our minds jump or bounce or leap based on associative ideas and experiences, interweaving with our emotional distress or glee, or suffering, or resignation, what is going on in our lives and our own little language packets, the real problem is by the time a poet writes what she thinks, by the time her thoughts become voice, she had edited, filtered, altered, adjusted her language to be safer, more politically correct, not as dark or jarring. How can the intellectually inoffensive be more interesting or approach the truth? Please don’t confuse this idea with good manners. I am not suggesting you act impolite, walk up to an obese man in Wal-Mart and tell him he’s fat. A: he knows it. B: it’s mean. Why do we shy away from that which makes the potential reader uncomfortable? In a nutshell, we don’t want our readers to think badly of us, that we are cruel, or bigoted, or lazy, or ignorant. Please plug in any negative adjective that you would like. We seek safety when art should make us pose the most difficult questions we only ask ourselves when we wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. As Jon Anderson, one of my teachers and a close friend said in his wonderful tongue-in-cheek poem—“The Secret of Poetry is Cruelty.” A poem cannot be so shy that it will not undress in front of you, but must be modest enough that it conceals something it will never share, only imply. A poem should contain an enormous Yes that spills & multiplies. And an understated No. Maybe good poem-ing should be so invisible that the reader sees only the world within the poem because we all know being in a state of wonder is more authentic than being in a state of knowing and only assholes claim to exist in the world of doubtlessness. I am perpetually unsure and the most intelligent among us are, undoubtedly, comfortable with ambiguity!

Guest Blog Post, Patricia Clark: The Writing Hut: A Dedicated Space

There is a primal urge in our muscles, housed in ligaments, tendons, cells. For a wrapper around us: the shell of an egg, nest, hut. To sit reading by a fire in a house with sturdy walls: one remembers the pleasure.Patricia Clark

I want to advocate for a dedicated space—for each of you, each of us, as writers—and if possible a writing space separate from your living space. As I write the sentence I lament that it took me years to know I needed such a space and then years to have the means to build one. Mine is small enough a white pine hides it from view, and yet it’s ample. How much does a writer need?

A desk, a chair, a lamp, heat, a ceiling fan for when it’s too hot. A shelf for books. A notebook, a writing implement. Windows, with some that open wide.

What shall it be called? I reject shack, but wish that the word studio had fewer syllables. I prefer the word hut. A friend recommended a longer title, suggesting cursive words burned into a plaque I nail up: “Pavilion for the Gathering of Harmonious Intent.” I resisted that, too. I refuse a sign, a name. I have a knocker in the shape of a trowel next to the door. “Please don’t knock unless it’s an emergency.” This is what I’ve told my husband.

I step outside, hiking up on my shoulder a bookbag with notebook and binoculars; in my other hand a thermos of coffee, a cup. Once I step into my writing hut, I breathe new air. I look out on a ravine behind our house, a creek, deciduous trees. All is forgotten: teaching schedule, chores, dinner menu, dentist appointment. I am riding the crest of a wave, alone. It’s thrilling. It’s where I need to be.

Trees by Patricia Clark Writing hut

Depending on your writing methods, you can leave technology behind—though wireless does extend out this far. I write longhand in a notebook, ones I buy in bulk quantities. I buy the same ones: lined, thick paper, with a colorful front and back and an elastic closure. I write with a pen. Eventually I will put the poem on my computer (in the house), print it out, work on revision (on paper), and repeat the process. But I love writing by hand. It slows the words down for me; there is time to think, reflect, stop and start again. Recursive, reflective, slow. It is “slow food,” this writing. Here’s a pat of butter sliding across the page, or a piece of ice melting, moving. Mixed metaphors. I think of Robert Frost’s words, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove a poem must ride on its own melting.”

One also leaves behind the whole writing profession, its worries, publishing, frets, envies, niggling doubts. Here one is up against writing itself, by itself. One grapples, struggles. The opponent? Oneself. There is no other here. Get it right; tell the truth, give the right, specific detail.

I like it quiet, like it with the windows open to birdsong, and I like it with music. Either way, find your space. Have it reflect the unique self that is you, and relish it.

Writing as practice, the hand caressing the page, the wet ink lapping at the dry paper. Each poem is a walk, a journey, and the mind wants to rove. Let us go a’maying, let us venture out.

Meet the Interns: Mariah Beckman, Solicitations Coordinator

mariahbeckman_0Mariah Beckman is an English Literature Senior at Arizona State University and is pursuing a Technical Writing Certificate.

Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?

Mariah Beckman: I review current solicitation list and update contacts, and maintain this list so that the following issues have a solicitations list to build off of. I also work with Editors to add names to list and constantly update the Solicitation List with author responses. My job consists largely of helping to garner submissions and organize the responses to those submissions to provide clear and updated list of works to be featured in Superstition Review.

SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?

MB: I was fortunate enough to take a class taught by one of the managing editors/founders, and was thusly recruited.

SR: What is your favorite section of SR? Why?

MB: I think that poetry is going to be my favorite section of SR. When I was in high school I dated this boy, and his brother was featured in Hayden’s Ferry Review, another Arizona State University literary magazine, and I remember thinking how awesome it was that he was valued enough to be represented. His submission was poetry. I really love to read poetry–no matter how busy I am, I can pick up a copy of my Cummings or Hughes or Frost collection and browse through a finished project, and that is what I love about poetry. If literature is the Christmas Tree, poetry are the Ornaments that make it dazzle even without the lights. I’m so excited to read the submissions and have an opportunity to read some up-and-comers and professionals, side-by-side, and compare the changing face of poetry today.

SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal? Talk about him/her.

MB: I think that I would love to feature Mark Danielewski (author of House of Leaves) or Chuck Palahniuk (author of the novels Fight Club, Snuff, Choke, etc). While each of these authors feature often mature content, their wit and eloquence are excellent artistic representations of Americans ever-changing and subversive culture. These authors publish challenging and exciting, often funny and always memorable works that have stuck with me and that I can relate to, and it would be amazing to feature one of their interviews or short stories to see what insights they could offer about writing in the 21st century.

SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?

MB: I would like to work with contributors whose works are chosen to fine-tune and polish their work for submission. I would love to be the person who not only delivers the great news that an individual’s work is publication-worthy, but also work with them to craft their writing and to make them the best vehicles for their art form, because written word is truly a timeless and powerful art.

SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?

MB: The finished product and readings are the milestones that I most look forward to for this upcoming issue. To see all of our efforts come to fruition will be amazing, and I just can’t wait.

SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?

MB: As a reader, there are so many books that I really appreciated and grew up with. The first book, however, that I can remember finishing and then reading all over again was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The characters in this novel were so vibrant–who doesn’t know and love a Captain Yossarian, tragic and clever anti-hero of life’s red tape? Or a Milo Minderbinder, enterprising get-rich-quick businessman with great demeanor and no conscience? Major Major, the Chaplain, Hungry Joe–there was a piece of all of America in every character, even the most despicable.

SR: What artist have you really connected with, either in subject matter, work, or motto?

MB: “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”–Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde in his The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the most prosaic and devilish books I’ve ever read. I’ve always considered myself a fan of Sylvia Plath, but never of her methods–her poetry is divine, but her short works and her life fell short of what I thought her work expressed her capable of. Oscar Wilde, however, was as much a modern philosopher as he ever was a writer. Everything he said or wrote is quotable–I don’t think the man ever had a mundane thought.

“Arguments are to be avoided; they are always vulgar and often convincing.”–Wilde

SR: What are some of your favorite websites to waste time on or distract you from homework?

MB: I am loathe to say Facebook, but there it is. I think that I blow more of my time on Facebook then I do checking my email. I Can Has Cheeseburger.com used to be high on the list, not because I’m a freak but because I have a lot of pets and every one of them seems to be represented in adorable photo form. don’t judge me. T-Shirt Hell.com–it’s awful and wrong, but I love it. I only wish I could buy up the site. If you’ve never been, you should check it out–it’s the most offensive and off-color t-shirts you would ever not want to see.

SR: What would be your dream class to take at ASU? What would the title be and what would it cover?

MB: YOU: A Montage

I would like to take a class that allows a person to gather together their most favorite and expressive mediums of expression–photos, written work, audio, video, links and things and ideas and beliefs–and turn it into something tangible…like a collage that one would be graded on. The final project would be in explanation and defense of not only the project, but the personality and individual it represents. My final would be a life-size mannequin, decked out to look like me but in clothing made of my favorite works, eyes that you could look into and press my nose to see a slideshow, a button on my mouth to hear me recite something of my choosing, and spaces cut out of my arms, legs, back, whatever, to put (assuming money isn’t the issue) clips of movies like “Vanilla Sky” or “Harold and Maude” and other favorites to show viewers, in a snapshot, me. This would be like the ultimate self-exploration, and it would involve a lot of actual project work, which isn’t something that I’ve really done since high school.