Mende Smith interviewed me today on her Blog Talk Radio show Writing on Demand.
Books mentioned in the interview are all available through en theos press
I’ve continued my Her Red Book, Too Ritual almost every day since I gave the assignment as a weekend workout. I don’t know how long I’ll continue. Perhaps until my book tour. Perhaps until I have enough material for a whole new book! All I know is that the results have been pleasantly surprising considering my whole life right now is working from home on my book marketing/touring strategies. I mean there’s not a lot of drama going on other than in my head, so I have to make use of the mundane.
Like writing about the crows daily migration east to west and back again. =
On the Morning of the Crow Migration
She does not recall when began
her fascination with birds
Prehistoric miracles defying the mundane
It could have been when she settled
into the new home
It could have been when she
gave them all names
Ahab on the chimney a seagull lookout
with a waddling of followers
willing to topple off the roof
and the Tweets Family Robinson
house sparrows in the eaves
Throwing open the curtain this morning
she catches the daily crow commute
West with the sunrise
each day a clockwork
And what if she went East
followed their route
to the border of their nesting trees?
Would she find the feckless crow
muttering waxing poetic about
the futility of flight
on a Winter’s Day?
Or is it All for One
One for All
No matter what the Ha Ha birds says?
(SEE my previous Her Red Book, Too entry: On the Day of the Bicycle Mammogram)
A few weeks ago I gave a weekend workout assignment that I enjoyed so much I haven’t stopped. It was a writing ritual I had created for myself 9 years ago that became the manuscript for my chapbook Her Red Book. Once I got back into the ritual (very basically: writing in 3rd person early in the morning and just before going to bed, and always titling it FIRST with On the Day of, On the Night of, On the Morning of. . . etc) I quickly realized what a gem it was and couldn’t believe it had taken me so many years to try it again.
I’ve wracked up several of them that I’m already editing and have decided to post a few, even though they still feel a bit precious.
On the Day of the Bicycle Mammogram
She rides on an uneven day west
a straight shot that curves but
does not stray In the waiting room
the receptionist speaks loud English
to the Chinese lady nods in another cyclist
eyes the father holding hands
with his woman-girl
They are all beyond guessing ages
She makes polite naked conversation
in the machine her breasts
vised in like fruit to juice
nothing to it she thinks
walking over the fading footprints
of visitors to the objectionably yellow building
She admires rooftops
the array of shingles ceramic and wood
She cycles past the cars and buses
daring them to make her feel
It’s just a test this
is only a test not the last
not the truth not the point
When she reaches her door
the winds have died down
the sunset has been postponed and
all she wants
is to finish her book
the one she is trapped inside
the one she has climbed into
(UPDATE (Feb 5) – I just started this workout and I have to say I am amazed and loving it. I think the combination of the ritual of writing first thing and last thing each day, introducing the piece through the “title” ritual, and writing 3rd person about oneself somehow draws deeper meaning from what could be seen as very ordinary experiences)
A big thank you to Gautami Tripathy for reminding me about Marvin Bell, who I hadn’t read in a long while. She was experiencing some writer’s block and Big Tent Poetry suggested their readers write versions of Bell’s Dead Man Poems (click on links for examples).
Dead man poems come out of an old Zen admonition that says, “Live as if you were already dead.” But you needn’t feel remorse. The dead man is alive and dead at the same time. He lives it up, he has opinions, he makes bad jokes, he has sex.
Years ago when I was reading the book The Poet’s Notebook (which also contains a few “Dead Man” poems) I was inspired by several of Bell’s journal entries that began with phrases like: “The Journal of a Few Minutes to Midnight,” “Journal of the Perverse Nature of Ice,” “Journal of the Night of Blue Ice.” I merged these two ideas, the “Dead Man” and “The Journal of . . .” and encouraged my students to create a ritual for a set period of time during which they would start each piece of writing this way: The Poem of ______, The Journal of ______, etc.
I was writing in a red notebook at the time, and for my own ritual I wrote every night before bed and first thing each morning in this book. Each poem started with the title “On the Night of . . .” or “On the Morning of . . .” or “On the Day of . . .”
Each poem was written in 3rd person, like Bell’s, but whereas he says the Dead Man isn’t necessarily him, my poems were all recording the small events of my own life, observing myself at a distance.
My intent was simply to write at the beginning or end of the day as an observer of my own thoughts and actions. It was an experiment in objectivity. What emerged was a sometimes surreal, sometimes poignant 3rd person story-telling . . . Becoming a character in my own poems allowed me to maintain a common story-thread while increasing my sense of freedom within the work.
Eventually, these poems ended up in a chapbook called Her Red Book.
I’ve included an example below. Other titles from the series include: “On the Night of the Pork Chop Billboard,” “On the Day of the Hospital Window,” and “On the Morning Before the Morning Before the Plane Took Off.”
Much of the time we title things after we’ve written them. In this case, the title should be the first thing written as a jumping off point.
(Suggestions for prose writers to put this exercise to use are below.)
On the Night She Didn’t Feel Like it Anymore
She stuffed herself to claustrophobic proportions
belly ache a reminder she still had work to do
she baked during moments of frustration listening
for the difference between fireworks and gunshots
she had been startled the week before by a
strange man in the yard tonight
she baked without looking out the window
perhaps it was the New York Times story
the Israeli tank blowing up two little boys
on bicycles who didn’t know the curfew was still in effect
the whole one the one who maintained his limbs
was buried with his chocolate bar in his hand
perhaps it was Noah’s impending flood God with crumbs in his beard
or the appearance of an angel-afraid-of-dogs in the forest
perhaps a lot of poets had died in the last few weeks
and with them their hats
or perhaps it was the rose on the bus lying on the dashboard
in wet paper towels confiscated at the border a memento
a kiss an apology
what she really wanted was to stay up all night creating a path
of words burning clay singeing the wick of mortal time
what she remembered was this is not a dress rehearsal
what did it matter the embarrassment of being human
when we are all pedaling away from the same tanks
with our chocolate bars and
our misinterpreted dreams
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I’ve never used this technique for my prose or for story or character building, but I think it would be an interesting experiment.
Of course, you’re probably already writing and thinking about your characters as “other” than you, so this exercise would simply be to use the ritual and the writing prompt as a way to write in a different direction and discover what’s there.
You could focus on a particular character and each morning when you get up, and each night when you go to sleep, simply write an observation of them around an incident, large or small. Just observe them and see what they do. It could be a great way to write about something you’ve been stuck on. Remember to write the “title” first.
The Story of the Ethereal Observation: she could not have seen them descending. At least, she should not have been able to see them. Standing there in the middle of The Shift, one hand on her friend’s arm, the other to her own mouth. Her heart, she could always sense it speaking to her, and now it was pulling as if it wanted to escape her chest. Her friend looks at her, at first teasing, then concerned. She could see them but not describe them. How can you describe a shape made of air? She moves forward, pulled by ghost. She knows she must leave, although she also knows if she leaves at that moment, she will not return. (etc)
By forcing yourself to write first thing in the morning and again just before bed, and using the “titling” method, perhaps you can sneak up on your muse.
Have a great weekend!
“Dropped Pages” is a series of poems that were, for whatever reason, left out of my books. I can never really finish tweaking them or being totally satisfied with the results. This one was left out of Her Red Book
On the Night of the Flood of Ghosts
He says we’re those kind of friends
one of us will be at the other’s funeral
She pulls the death card
scythe and burning vardo
in Texas flooding takes their friend’s home away
and homes in Russia and the streets of Prague
as Nigerian women sit
on the dock at Texaco and threaten
to remove their clothing
from around themselves
She taps the deck
the further we get from heartache
the more we can love the ghost of it
recalling the decree of separation
that left her a Toyota Corolla darkroom
equipment piano and one cat named Quincy
all night They turn over old loves
now with new loves lost
in the tarot deck seeking advice
from kettles and feathers and stones
She says handling the pain of His Heart
despite the cards
Let’s everything around Us grow wild
There was bound to be a casualty sooner or later. Spider relocation is risky business.
I didn’t mean to do it, but I wasn’t exactly looking out for the little guys as I caulked the room. I was just caulking along and ZOOP, accidentally caulked a spider into a crack. Egad!
Condolences to the wee beast’s family and a tribute – an oldie but a goodie from my chapbook Her Red Book.
Days After the Spider was Dead
She knew that time of year
when trees invent new colors and the sunset
from a pacific Northwest train is an
angelic hole in an otherwise clouded sky
She’d been waiting for some appropriate
memorial for the dead spider
Big-as-Your-Hand leg span tennis-shoed
into a basement carpet as 40-year-old
schoolboys revisit songs they’d written
long before the world had bitten them in two
sent them separate ways with a melancholy glance
She sat mesmerized by her lover’s fingers
and his “forgive me I’m out of practice” smile
until the spider incident
knocked against her head
the spider later to be
reincarnated as a
deaf child whose parents grow frustrated
after years of misunderstanding
a deaf child who will only hear music
in her nightmares
as long fingers reach through webs like
musical notes and catch her
by the hair
The reunion is over now the basement graveyard
lights out cold fall streets
smear pages of leaves wet with timely rain
her lover’s hand takes hers during
Ave Maria in church on a Sunday and she thinks
I didn’t even know that spider’s name…
This was a poem dropped from Her Red Book. I still might include it in another book.
dust is beautiful
it floats in the stratosphere
above the cumulonimbus
and diffuses the waves
making the sky blue
azuring the eyes
of the nomadic poet
who learns the names
like pop songs
singing them in her head
with only light
that bounce around the nape of her heart
because in the middle world
there is a such thing
Jump on The Monday Night Poetry Train
The words “middle world” did not appear in the original poem. I borrowed them after hearing this wonderful post on TED. If you have 20 minutes to spare, this will curl your brain: