Tag Archives: poetry

In The Skin of A Lion

Cover of the first edition

I’m re-reading and pondering Michael Ondaatje’s book, In The Skin of A Lion.  I love this book. For me, this is a book to read again and again, to study and learn from.  This novel is an open apprenticeship.  Any good novel might be like that: think about which novel yours might be.  This one speaks to me.

Tonight, this passage from p. 157 seems like one definition of community:

“Alice had once described a play to him in which several actresses shared the role of heroine.  After half an hour the powerful matriarch removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled and she passed it, along with her strength, to one of the minor characters.  In this way even a silent daughter could put on the cloak and be able to break through her chrysalis into language.  Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.”


Breaking, where to break

An important little symbol.

Oh, where to break the paragraphs, how to expunge some one sentence paragraphs, justify some two sentence paragraphs, avoid too many short paragraphs, how not to be jarring, or coy, and how to trust the reader to know where I mean to place emphasis, how to trust my intuition, the flow of the words, the lightning bolt that tells me to end or begin a paragraph…

Understanding, maybe a little bit, how poets work.

Shut up and sing the song

Jack Hardy’s (magic) green velvet coat

When a songwriter at Jack Hardy’s weekly songwriters group would explain what he or she was about to sing, Jack Hardy would say, “Shut up and sing the song.”  Abrupt, and to some, rude, but a valid procedural point for a workshop, even more notable in its good advice to the writer.

Let the work speak for itself.  If something is  important enough, yet is not on the page, or in the lyrics, put it in there.  Rework or revise it later if you need to, if what you mean is not conveyed through your magic lattice of words, sounds, syllables.

I’ve stolen Jack’s  line when approaching fiction workshops: it applies.  I feel very rude ever telling someone to “shut up,” and usually preface it with context.  As an imperative to action, “Shut up and sing the song” is simple and worth doing.  (I’m talking to myself, too.  For years, I whined about how I wanted to write and yet was not doing it.)  Shut up about what you want to do, wish you could do, mean to do, intend to do.

Shut up and sing the song.

Everything’s so easy for Pauline…

Neko Case, looking cool as usual. But I think she's still "Margaret."

This song haunts me.  Neko Case is amazing from any angle: musician, poet, strong survivor of life’s trials.  But this song sticks with me, and I can’t shake it off.  I’m sure the story is not as simple from Pauline’s point of view, but still…  This song seems as much a poem as any of Simon and Garfunkle’s poetry.  Here are the lyrics.

“Margaret vs. Pauline”

Everything’s so easy for Pauline
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
Ancient strings set feet a light to speed to her such mild grace
No monument of tacky gold
They smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves
And they placed an ingot in her breast to burn cool and collected
Fate holds her firm in its cradle and then rolls her for a tender pause to savor
Everything’s so easy for Pauline

Girl with the parking lot eyes
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her bravery is mistaken for the thrashing in the lake
Of the make-believe monster whose picture was faked
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her love pours like a fountain
Her love steams like rage
Her jaw aches from wanting and she’s sick from chlorine
But she’ll never be as clean
As the cool side of satin, Pauline

Two girls ride the blue line
Two girls walk down the same street
One left her sweater sittin’ on the train
The other lost three fingers at the cannery
Everything’s so easy for Pauline

Antioch Writers Workshop July 2010

Embroiled fully in this year’s Antioch Writers Workshop.  I love being around writers, talking about writing, writing with writers, the world cracking open before me.

Before the keynote on Saturday, I was driving to campus and feeling guilty, semi-taking a week off from child, home, life, to do the workshop, because sometimes it seems like choosing to be a writer is a silly luxury (but is it even a choice? I ask myself).


Then I realized (it’s so easy to REALIZE things while driving, isn’t it?) that all writing is really about life.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, a person (who is alive) puts something on paper (or screen, or sand) and it means something to at least one person.  What else is life, if not that?

Where to break things

I have been thinking in a very gestural and unscientific way about how poems, short stories, and novels are similar and different, both for reader and writer.

Something comes to mind about pacing, tempo, and where to break things.

When working on a novel, finding the right chapter break is crucial. It’s also important to think about where to end paragraphs. Is the question of where to end paragraphs even more important in writing short stories? And decisions about line breaks, even in the very occasional poems I’m working on, seem similarly intuitive and challenging.

I am not claiming that sentences, or words, are not crucial in novels. But there does seem to be a point of comparison among the forms, with the question of chapters, paragraphs, and lines, and where to break them.

Now the question is: how to end this post?

The Interweb (a poem)

The Interweb
is like a big, bright store
that I enter to buy just a couple things, like
the pizza delivery number, or
the definition to a word
but I can’t find the right aisle
and other carts keep bumping into my cart
and my cart bumps into other carts
and all the carts are singing arias
in various strange languages

which are very interesting, in a way,

and I keep getting distracted by aisles that are full of things like
an AP headline
or virtual bubble-wrap

and then

I look at my watch:
I don’t even wear a watch but
an hour has passed,
an hour

which I will never regain,
even if I keep the tags on
and don’t lose the receipt.

On not being a poet

Writers of all forms say they feel not simply drawn, but called to write.  But when I was in grad school, I noticed something about the poets.  Many seemed more mystically attached to what they did than the writers of prose.  Those poets were not pretentious, but watching them, I got the feeling there was something purer, maybe gnostic, about the practice of poetry.  Could poetry be a more athletic practice than prose, if only in the necessary distillation and economy of words?  (I don’t mean to make too many generalizations about forms and writers: there are certain novelists who are or might as well be poets, or whose prose feels like poetry.  I love reading a novel that feels like it was written by a poet.)

I’ve written poetry most of my life, but I always feel timid taking my poetry seriously.  When it comes to poetry, I know I am a hobbyist.  Not a real poet, but someone who visits the land of poetry on vacations, wearing garish clothing and the wrong shoes, talking too loud, and taking snapshots of the pretty sites.  With a straight face, I can call myself a writer, but not a poet.

I need to work some light into that dark corner.  I need to read and write more poetry.