Thursday, May 28, 2009

OCHO #24 Twitter Poets issue

OCHO is live and fantastic and I'm delighted to have a poem in this issue. Go look see: OCHO #24 Twitter Issue. My poem, "Dark clouds of the Carina Nebula," is on page 14. Collin Kelley did a fantastic job as guest editor and kudos goes to Didi Menendez (the person behind the MiPOesias curtain), as always, for her generous presence that made it possible. I'm told that copies will soon be available on Amazon, which is very cool. Yeah, I'll be buying.

The best part about this issue? The poets are all identified by their Twitter names. Mine: @chrissiemkl. Here are the rest of the contributors: Ivy Alvarez, Patty Paine, Anne Haines, Matthew Hittinger, Pris Campbell, Nancy Devine, JS van Buskirk, Kate Evans, Alex Dimitrov, Rachel Barenblat, Saeed Jones, Stacie Boschma, Ray Succre, Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Cheryl Snell, Andrew Demcak, Karen Head, Pamela Johnson Parker, Rosemary Nissen-Wade, Will Kenyon, Sherry Chandler, AnnMarie Eldon, Christine Swint, Deb Scott, Scott Edward Anderson, Samuel Peralta, Emily A. Benton, Shann Palmer, Montgomery Maxton, Christopher Hennessy, Jackie Sheeler, Peggy Eldridge-Love, Tammy Knot, Luisa A. Igloria, Robert Lee Brewer, C. Cleo Creech and Cole Krawitz.

Another amazing thing? Didi just tweeted that the person who did the cover art is 12 years old. Wow. I'm a helluva lot older than that and I still rely on stick figures.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Creative Writing and Class

One of my favorite books is Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. It takes a rather tongue-in-cheek look at a subject about which a great many people get themselves quite upset and makes me laugh every time I read it. Of course, class pervades every part of life, including writing. For as long as I’ve been writing I’ve had an unconscious awareness about the kinds of creative writing that are “better” than others: poetry, essays, and extremely complicated science texts are on the top of the heap, at least if you’re among academics or intellectuals (if you’re in the middle of a gathering of working class folk, telling them you are a poet is akin to admitting that you still suck your thumb at night—the news is met with blank stares, so I usually prevaricate and tell them I’m a stay-at-home-mom which has more cachet). Science fiction, fantasy, romance novels, and (gasp!) erotica are at the bottom of the literati’s list of what one should read, unless of course you’re writing a scholarly article about erotica or compiling some sort of academic erotica which usually has something to do with feminism or gender studies at which point the erotica rockets to the top of the pile (one must find some legitimate way to read one’s favorite porn, right?). These days, thanks to the internets, there’s an even lower form of writing, the lowest of the low, the very dregs of the whole enterprise: fanfiction. I mean, that stuff isn’t even published! My word!

So, of course, growing up, I did my best to hide the fact that I love genre fiction. Sci-fi and romance have always been my novels of choice. While everyone around me was reading Tolstoy and Plath, I was busy sucking down every last one of Asimov’s books and chasing them with a helping of regency love stories. When I tried to force myself to read Dickens or Austen, guess what happened? Yes: FAIL. What does this all mean? For me, after many years and thousands of books I have discovered a secret: there are really excellently written sci-fi/fantasy and romance novels, and yes, even some incredible fanfiction. Eventually I forced myself to read some classics and I found that I far prefer literary non-fiction to fiction (I have never finished a Dickens novel, not ever, though I love Poe). This gave me an extremely broad vista of material from which to form my ideas of what is ‘good’ writing and what is not. I didn’t limit myself to what I was ‘supposed’ to read and in so doing, I have discovered that buried beneath all the dreck are some pretty damn good stories. I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t read the incredible and far-reaching political theories in sci-fi, or learned how very deeply love can heal the soul from reading romance novels. And the best part? These books are fun! They don’t make me weep uncontrollably at the end, wishing I had put out my eyes with a spoon instead of reading that insanely sad novel (see Cry, the Beloved Country, and no, I don’t care that it was brilliant, it was freaking depressing).

Now, this begs the question, why do so many academics and professionals insist that one should only read the stuff on the top of the creative writing class heap? Why do they wrinkle their noses and sniff if you happen to mistakenly fart out that right this very moment you are reading the latest Laurell K. Hamilton book? Why do I still reflexively hide the cover of my fantasy novel when I’m in public? Because what you read is a form of self-advertising. And because the collective mass of people around you believes you are a nerd if you read sci-fi, or stupid if you read romance, you hide your guilty pleasure like you hide your fixation with American Idol. It’s so much more impressive to bleat about how much you like NPR and did you know that people are reading Rand again? than it is to just own up to the fact that you could care less what subject Gladwell has tackled lately as long as you can get your Balogh fix. It’s all about appearances, which is, of course, the original function of class ideology and status in the tribe: full circle baby, go directly to Fussell’s book. So, when I say I’m a poet and I read non-fiction books about science, I’m not lying. Yes, I’m waiting for you to be impressed and hoping my literary superiority will rocket me to the top of the pile when grazing amongst the herd. However, I also read Scalzi’s and Asaro’s sci-fi novels and most hideously, Emma Holly’s erotica and I love them. Yes I do. I just don’t tell you.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

for Mother's Day 2009

I’ve been a mother for nearly fifteen years. I still remember the first shocking moment that I realized what I’d done, and no, it wasn’t in the hospital or even when I brought the kid home. It wasn’t even that night. It happened a few days later when he suddenly stopped staring adorably out at the world and began screaming non-stop for the next ten months. Well. Right then I learned my lesson: your child is not an extension of you. This small, helpless infant was his own person. Sure, his dad and I fed him and hugged him and made sure he didn’t die from lack of sunlight, but still, none of that is actually the point, is it? Really, the fact that I kept him and his younger brother alive for all these years isn’t the point either, even though I am justifiably proud of it since even now I can’t keep a plant green for longer than a year or so.

Now, I suppose I ought to get all sentimental and explain to my own mother (who will hopefully read this) how much she means to me and how grateful I am to her for feeding me and keeping me alive long enough to talk back at her and slam doors and all the other repellent teen stuff, but you know what? She already knows. Instead, I’d like to explain what I really think motherhood encompasses: the job is to teach your child how to ask questions. Really, it’s not anything more complicated than that. The truth is, the ability to survive has always depended on how good you are at solving problems. That used to mean understanding about winter and how to store food and learning enough about being charming to secure your status in the tribe. These things are still important, but one problem that seems to loom in our culture even larger than the issue of mere survival these days is how can I be happy? The funny thing? You can’t teach your kid how to be happy unless you’ve figured it out first. By the time you do figure it out, if ever, you have learned that teaching happiness is impossible (which, damnit, was a really aggravating discovery). You can only show them how to ask the questions that they find important, because remember, your kids are not you and what makes you happy will not necessarily make them happy. The trick is to teach them how to find their own answers. The other trick is to let them ask their own questions.

I wrote a poem a few years ago called, “The book of small treasures.” It’s the title poem from my unpublished chapbook in which all the poems are about motherhood:

The book of small treasures

Each day, he holds out his empty book,
the pages filled with blankness as if to ask:
so, now what? I have no answers. I am
a mother. Philosophy reveals itself slowly,
if at all, in the small things: a dark tree
suddenly clear in the fog, a tadpole
moving ecstatically in the roadside puddle.
I teach him to fold these little treasures
in his book, to save them forever, and he does
what I ask, mindlessly, but it is still not enough.
He needs more answers to fill up the landscape
he’s just discovered. He needs both love
and distance, like the garden that won’t bloom
until you step away. This is what I write
in my book, slowly, with much prodding
and resistance. These are the things my mother
taught me when I was a girl, when she let me hold
her book, its pages filled with thin drawings,
penciled resignation. The blankness punctuated
with the occasional, brilliant letter.

Ultimately, I think the question of how to be happy is really not a question so much as it is a walk somewhere. Along the way it’s helpful to note which things in life bring you joy. In the true perverseness that is life, they’re never what you expect and certainly not anything to do with “success” or “what you’re supposed to do.” Often, the stuff that really makes me happy are the things that take the most work, like learning how to write, drinking a perfect cup of tea (you would not believe how long it took me to get the temperature right), or finally realizing that every person I love isn’t perfect and forgiving them and myself for having expected the impossible. I could go on, but my explanations would be meaningless since every person’s happiness is, well, personal. This is the thing I want my boys to learn. This is what I’m teaching them when I ask: what are your questions? Go find them and don’t worry if you don’t figure it out right away. Life may often suck, but it’s cool, too. You get to try things more than once.

Some of this I learned on my own. Some of it I learned from my mother who stubbornly continues to listen to me, despite my insistent departure from her most familiar philosophies. That can’t be comfortable for her and I am always amazed when she tells me she has learned something from me. I want to be that kind of mother, the one who listens to her kids and respects their discoveries about happiness. Maybe it was her insistence that “contentment is boring” that made me ask and ask and read and move out and live completely differently than anyone else in the family that convinced me that the question is the answer. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t have managed it if she hadn’t had the fortitude to let me be my own person. Today I filled in some more pages of that blank book she gave me when I was born (hey, I’m speaking metaphorically here, don’t expect a photo, sheesh). This morning I wrote: Hey Mom? Thanks for the book.


Saturday, May 09, 2009

review of The Flea

Review of the inaugural issue of The Flea

I spent April reading and writing poetry in honor of National Poetry Month. To my dismay, most of it was dreck. I had poems emailed to me, read them on blogs, online workshops, in journals, and investigated some new poets I’d not read before. My disappointment nearly crushed the life out of my pencil. Several days ago I read a few poems by Carol Ann Duffy thinking, how cool that the UK’s new poet laureate is a woman. Perhaps I wasn’t working from a large enough sample size, but the three poems I’d read were enough to convince me that I would never willingly read more: “I sank like a stone / Into the still, deep waters / of late middle age,” said her poem “Mrs Rip Van Winkle” and after reading that, so did I. And just yesterday I read a poem by Ferlinghetti (“Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signaling you through the flames]”) and was astonished by the pointlessness of it: “If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.” Uh, sure. Why the hell not? Just throw out alliteration and assonance and while you’re at it, forget that metaphor is the single most useful device in the English language.

This morning I woke up and checked my email in despair, not really even hoping anymore for good writing to magically appear and appease my underfed poetic muse. Instead of a poem, I received notification that someone new was following me on Twitter. My hungry muse whimpered in dismay. I didn’t know who it was since Twitter does not tell you the real names of your followers, just their userid’s which usually look like spam, only spelled more weirdly. I clicked on the profile. It still looked like spam, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t better written than the poems I’d been reading. The tweet said: Dancing with Metaphysical Fleas. What? Cool. I followed the link: and nearly had a heart attack. It was poetry! Holy moly, it was good poetry!

Upon further investigation, I discovered that The Flea is a brand new online journal (excuse me, broadsheet) full of the most interesting and creative poetry I’d read all month (outside of a few blogs and several good online workshop participants, which is code for unpublished poetry that will never see the light of day in a journal if the PTB have anything to say about it). Really, really good stuff. The first two lines of Catherine Chandler’s poem, “Body of Evidence” were delightful: “At odds about the odds the oxen sit. / Intransigent, they just don’t give a whit” Whoa! It rhymes! It uses iambic pentameter! It cleverly leads you to think the last word of the second line is going to be “shit” but then throws you over the connotation cliff with “whit” instead. I loved it. Even better was that the rest of the poem didn’t disappoint. It discusses point of view and god in a way that is both interesting and musically lyrical. I felt such relief. I’d opened the link to The Flea and been magically transported to a poet’s castle where the emperor’s new clothes were actually made of fabric instead of wishful thinking.

Now, I’m not a formal poetry nerd. Really, I’m not. I like free verse and have probably read more of it in my life than anything done up in pretty meter, so with great delight I clicked next on Rose Kelleher’s poem, “Global Solutions Architect.” I am married to a software engineering genius so the lingo in her poem was completely awesome and geekishly nifty. Yes, I know what a proton is and sure, I actually do know what a dynamic library does. Cool so far. Then her poem smacked me upside the head with this line: “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” Whoa! Was that an allusion? It was! It was! I grew so excited I read the rest of the poem thinking: Wow. Someone adroitly compares the nature of human intelligence and what we have made to the idea of a creator while not boring me to death. How could I not love a poem that says this in one place: “earth to the moon, and moon to spoon and croon,” and this in another: “breathe in, breathe out, iambic ones and zeros”? And then, spectacularly, it ends with chaos theory: “some engineer / who chuckles softly, sending a vibration / that fails to alter history the way / a butterfly-wing would, or so they say.”

I read “De Caelis” by Temple Cone, marveling at the experimental format and the way the poet rhymed “sky” with π. I read “Neutrinos and the holy spirit” by Geoff Page, pissed that I didn’t think of comparing the holy spirit to invisible particles in a poem. Why didn’t I write that? I listened to “Sonnet 27 from The Dark Lady” by Jennifer Reeser who managed to fit the words “Scheherazade,” “extenuated,” and “gracile” effortlessly into the sonnet form. I read the rest of the excellent poems found there (too many to discuss here without sounding like a brainless fangirl) and decided that the editor, Paul Stevens, succeeded in his goal, stated in the editorial note: “Whatever we think that Metaphysical poetry might be, most will agree that the possible range is very wide indeed. But for the purposes of The Flea, the term simply means that I will be receptive to good poems that might elsewhere struggle to win a hearing. . .” My starveling muse has finally eaten her fill and shut up. And the silence is filled with something much better than the clichés that had been fogging up my reading glasses.

I have no excuses anymore for laziness. I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing really worth reading being published and I was wrong. Go, go to The Flea. Read it and be grateful. I’ll be collecting all the useless print journals I’ve got sitting around and firing up the barbecue. Maybe the light of the flames will inspire me. At least I know that there is still poetry in the world that speaks to the mind and heart without navigating through the navel first and miring us all in the lint so often found therein.


Wednesday, May 06, 2009

new poem in Touch: The Journal of Healing

I am delighted to have my poem, Crescent moon with earthshine in the debut issue of Touch: The Journal of Healing.

Please stop by and read the rest of the wonderful stuff there, including work by Dennis Greene, Ed Bennett, Esther Greenleaf Mürer, Laura Levesque, Maria Basile, Bebe Cook, Yvette Wiley, Larina Warnock, Colin Ward, Stephen Bunch, Mary Susan Clemons, Donal Mahoney, Alarie Tennille, Sherry O’Keefe, Toni L. Wilkes, Murray Alfredson, Christian Ward, and Arti Subramanian.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Genius? Uh no. Madness.

. . . Or maybe determination and revision.

I used to think I was talented. Seriously. Okay, you can stop laughing now. I have always known what I was going to do with my life. Until college, it never occurred to me that other people did not have this comforting knowledge. Then I met people who walked around as though life was a complete mystery. It was a source of great angst for them and much amusement for me. I was a repellent creature, wasn’t I?

The most ridiculous part of thinking I was talented was expecting to not only be good at my chosen calling, but to also be successful at it. Ha. Yes, I hear you laughing again. Stop. Needless to say, these dreams were crushed rather dramatically in my twenties. Well, the idea of success was. I still thought I was talented. It took another ten years for that to be crushed (can you say: rejection slips?). However, don’t despair, this story has a happy ending. I learned that neither success nor talent matter. They don’t matter. Why?

Because determination trumps them both. Where the hell determination comes from is still a mystery to me; perhaps it’s just sheer stubbornness masquerading as a positive trait (can you say: screw you to the whole world?). Happily, success has mostly lost its luster for me, at least success as other people define it. I’m no longer so obsessed with being a best-selling novelist (though it would be nice, all that money). However, I am obsessed with being a good writer, good however I define it, that is. My husband believes that even if you are determined, without talent, all the determination in the world will not matter. Perhaps that’s also true. Perhaps it takes both. However, I do know that talent is useless unless you have the determination to hone it, practicing over and over again for years. Years.

Today I read an article in the NYTimes that seemed to reflect some of this pet theory of mine: Genius: The Modern View. In it, Brooks discusses genius and how we all seem to think that one is born with it. Einstein was destined to become a famous physicist. Phelps was destined to become an insane swimmer. Uh no. Not necessarily. So, what is it that makes these types of people so “successful?” The ability to practice the thing that interested them over and over again for years. This practice can make practically anyone into a genius. Except, who can stand to do that sort of thing? You miss a lot of TV and nights out at the local bar. You might even have missed the last episode of BSG (gasp!). So who is determined enough to do something like that for hours every day? Hmm.

Many people ask me how I could possibly write a fairly complete poem each day for a month. The short answer: I can’t, really (yes, I know I didn’t finish the last seven days of NaPoWriMo this year, enough already). The long answer: I didn’t used to be able to do that and now I can, but it’s only because I studied for ten years. See, I thought I knew how to write even though I didn’t do much of it during the 1990s. I was wrong. In 1999 I couldn’t stand it anymore. I missed writing. I hated not doing what I always thought I would and I hated even more the desperate sensation of being trapped in a hell of one’s own making. I began writing. Much drivel appeared at the end of my pencil (if you are desperate for proof, I’ll post a poem from 1999 so that you may laugh and hurl simultaneously).

Point is, I spent the next ten years practicing. It was useless as far as careers go; I think poetry is the last art at which you make nothing (there are a few cash prizes, but still, no millions). Why the hell would I do this? I was determined. I promised myself when I was ten I would be a poet. And it was exciting to get better at it. I can’t even begin to explain what it feels like to grow a sixth sense about line-breaks or the first time I really understood what an iambic foot was. (Although I still think Hopkins’ sprung rhythm is madness. He pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.)

So, I slogged through Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry with her fascinating ideas about metaphor and her bizarre charts. I slogged through The Heath Guide to Poetry, The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Writing Poems, In the Palm of Your Hand, The Language of Life, The Face of Poetry, and about one hundred others (forgive me, lists are boring, I know). Then I wrote. I focused on one aspect of poetry for months at a time: sound, metaphor, personification, etc. I revised. This cannot stress this particular thing enough: I REVISED A LOT. Anyone can write a vast amount of dreck every day and not improve the writing one iota if one does not think critically about what one is doing. I revised one poem over seven years time and it still isn’t my best work.

By 2008 I could consistently write a poem I felt worked in a style recognizably mine without much revision. By 2009, I could write a poem that worked in a style not recognizably mine without much revision. Consistently being the operative word (there are always those happy accidents, but the ability to do something intentionally is the goal). So, the most important thing I learned from all this? Stuff takes a long time. It took a minimum of ten years for me to feel like I’d figured it out. Ten years to learn how to write a poem. This doesn’t include college or high school or all the years of my twenties. Ten years of study and obsession to get a good poem at the end and no monetary compensation? Madness.

Of course, the question remains: is the stuff I put out any good? I like it. Some others seem to like it. It doesn’t look like a lot of what’s published today, but I don’t mind anymore. I am successful in my own head which is, oddly, right where I was when I was eighteen years old and a freaking genius. I have walked forwards and ended up at the beginning, but at least I can say that I know what a poem is now. I can knowledgeably converse with others about poetry. I recognize a sonnet even if it doesn’t bite me on the ankle first. And none of this is attributable to any freakish inborn aptitude.

Sestina circa 1999 — only thing good about it is that it’s not in first person


There she stands at dusk, lost on the curb,
staring silent into the dank gutter.
The autumn leaves are trapped, still
and frozen in the open iron grate.
Cinder and ice islands lie stranded
around her, surrounding her:

unfortunate winter monuments. Her
face is tight, holding a desperate curb
on her emotions. A thin strand
of hair flicks across her cheek while the gutter
smells wrinkle her nose, grating
against her senses. She is still,

lost, until a sharp wind stills
her thoughts. She crosses the street, her
heart beating fast. She hops another grate,
avoiding the mess in it to step onto the curb.
Up in the sky painted clouds far from the gutter
in her mind leap across the blue expanse in strands.

Looking up, startled by beauty, she imagines the strand
of her life changing, streaming free. “I am still
alive,” she thinks. She looks down past the gutter
and glimpses of trees and water beckon her.
She pivots, and turns down the walk, another curb
in her way. Jump! She leaps over the edge, past the grate

and runs down the hill to the valley. No grates
collect waste and ice here; there’s only rich strands
of old leaves woven into the ground. No sharp curbs
trap the yellow grass, no slippery sidewalks still
the wildflowers. She leaves the blocked gutter
up on the dark mountain city far behind her,

to still herself in the valley, see the deepening sky. Strands
of starlight curb the horizon, so beautiful! The gutter
above is silent; its grates are frozen shut far away from her.

Free verse circa 2005 — a happy accident


Don’t judge me
she says as I walk in.
I know love is a puzzle,
but her words confuse
more than usual as they fall
from blue lips.
What is she doing there,
on the floor,
wanting to be unmade?

Blood does not lie
as it streaks linoleum.
It doesn’t soak in.
It just leaks like a dropped cup
of coffee, a wasted taste
I lunge for, try to staunch
with a dishtowel.
It’s too late
the tree outside says.

Leaves drop like grief
onto wet ground.

first appeared in: Ibbetson Street Press, November/December 2005, Issue 18