Archive for February, 2007

lake calhoun, not far from the MN Zen Center, photo by Quoinmonkey, all rights reserved                                                                                                                                             

The wind...it's hard to describe the wind. 
Lost and empty. The way desert is lost and empty.
And at the same time, so full.

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

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Interesting article in this week’s issue of The New Yorker: The Moneyed Muse–What can two hundred million dollars do for poetry? by Dana Goodyear. It talks about an almost unheard of donation ($200M) to a small, eclectic literary publication called Poetry Magazine. Gives the history of the publication, talks about the woman who gave the donation and why, and looks at how the donation has changed the publication and created an auxillary foundation.

Not to ruin the plot for you, but there is apparently a sort of “corporatization” (that’s my characterization, not the article’s) of poetry as a result. The executive director and several staff members are former corporate executives; the money came from Eli Lily Pharmaceutical heiress, Ruth Lilly; several staff members are from the private sector (e.g., Microsoft). The article highlights the magazine and foundation’s push for a change in poetry–a new movement to make poetry more accessible and, one could argue, more marketable.

My ears perked up when a critic of Poetry Magazine and the foundation also threw Ted Kooser in there with them–“them” being this market-driven approach to poetry–presumably because of his corporate past life.

Read it and tell me what you think. It’s a long read.

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I’m drinking a cup of French Roast in a black ceramic mug that I reheated in the microwave. I wasn’t thinking when I took the first sip. My tongue and the roof of my mouth are burned. I write anyway. No, red gums are not keeping me back. Nor pink, fleshy ripples on the roof of my mouth, nor the size of my gut, nor the overwhelm I feel on a Monday morning, a week after the last Intensive in New Mexico.

I remember in the zendo, we were to write something on a piece of paper and put it on the altar for the week. Something we wanted to let go of. When I walked over to grab a piece off the pile of cut and stacked used paper, on it was a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca:

“I remember what’s in front of you.” – Baca poem

In the silence, I thought it was so profound. Like Natalie telling us to follow the person behind us. Now I can only think of following the person behind me as the writers that came before me. I stand strong on their backs. And they watch mine.

What is holding me back? Me. I like Baca’s words. Because they remind me that other people can see me and where I am going much more clearly than I can see myself. We are all in this together. Whether we are writers or astronauts. We all live on this planet. Though we sometimes travel to others.

I feel like I am on the edge of something, a steep precipice, some cliffhanger on Mount Hood. I’ve been hearing a lot about Mount Hood lately. Climbers falling and rescued. They take great risks, great leaps of faith, because they love climbing. That’s what I have to do as a writer. My life is not in danger but my character is hung out there to dry, for all to see.

I’ve still got some of those old wooden clothes hangers my mother used to use to hang wet clean laundry on three strings of clothes line. I use them to clip Rice Krispies and Doritos packages closed so they don’t get stale. I used to love the smell of sundried clothes when I would take them down, fold them, and stack them in the plastic turquoise laundry basket with hundreds of cut vents in the sides.

There is nothing like the smell of clean laundry. Unless it’s the smell of the first mowed grass in early spring. Or the scent of fireflies in a summer pickle jar of emerald cuttings.

But what is holding me back? Fear. I’m afraid I will fail. And I will only succeed if I am fearless of failure. That’s what my teacher says. And I believe her. But I have to find out for myself, don’t I? Yes. I have to make my own mistakes.

To be honest, I have no idea what is holding me back. I feel like I am moving forward. I don’t exactly know the plan. But I have a loose outline of the year ahead, structured around writing. I want to start work on my memoir and I have an outline that came to me in a dream five years ago. Can you believe that? A dream. Not much has changed on the outline. I’ve decided to let the book unfold – I want to let the story tell me. When I go back to the places I will write about, I want to listen. And write down what I hear. Like we did at Ghost Ranch, writing haiku in the steaming sun.

I have a plan for my writing and consulting business. I have a plan to teach. I have a plan to start my first memoir. Maybe there will be many. I was reading last night that Haven Kimmel is on her second memoir, a sequel. I like the idea of that. Mabel Dodge Luhan did that, too, wrote a series of memoirs. Were there four? It doesn’t matter how good they are. What matters is that I get them out. I can do the editing later. I have to make time and money to travel, research, get the words down on paper, the first draft.

It’s going to take years. In the meantime, I practice. There is nothing holding me back but me. Everything is in place. Because, slowly, over the last 6 years, I took risks at looking dumb and exposed and allowed myself to show me to other writers in my life. I have a big writing community. I do writing practice nearly every day. I have strong writing bones. I didn’t always have those things. Not that long ago, I only had me. I know how to teach other writers to practice and create community. Those are not the things that are stopping me.

It is fear. The same fear arises every time I finish a piece. I gear up to write, I am lost in the process of writing, I am feeling great joy, that writing euphoria every writer knows. I am done, I edit, it’s ready – then the let down. After every high of writing comes the big let down that it’s done. And the next piece awaits me.

I have to stay strong and steady in the middle of the pendulous wave. I can picture it on a graph, x/y coordinates, like a big tsunami, aftershock, and then falling down to bone level, kind of like the even wave I saw at the Science Museum of Minnesota the week before I left for Taos.

There was a 30 foot long rectangular tank with a continuous wave, perfectly even at the top, undulating from one end of the tank to the next. There was also a vertical tornado chamber in which a spray of fog whipped itself into a frenzy when you spun a wheel. I do all those things when I write. And then it’s over.

What keeps me back is knowing that when I finish one piece, or a practice, the next calls out to me. Eventually, I have to get up the gumption to keep going. No matter what. Even when I am afraid. Even when every bone in my body is telling me I can’t write. I keep going.

Because somewhere, some other strong, tired, worn out writer is saying, “I remember what’s in front of you.”

It’s scary to think I might have forgotten. Yesterday I cried. On Friday, I felt a great joy at the largeness of my life. Saturday I was tired and feeling under the weather. Sunday I slept most of the day. Monday is solemn. So I take the next right step. What’s in front of me. Just like this writing practice. And the ritual of French Roast. And now my morning shower.

Monday, February 19th, 2007

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It’s the Chinese New Year. I spent a Chinese New Year in San Francisco. It was the year 2000. I stayed at the Clift Hotel downtown, took photographs of the hotel interior and downtown San Francisco while the person I was with went off to meet with the Minnesota chorus she was in. It was their annual meeting.

I had been to San Francisco two other times that year on business. I don’t normally travel for business. But that year was a boom. The company I worked for was merging with a San Francisco company, something none of us were happy about. Eventually, all jobs here were lost. I have found out since that the business operations of that company moved back to Minnesota last year.

Silent revenge. But I’m not a vengeful person. And that’s not what I want to write about.

I want to write about the Chinese New Year. I didn’t know it was happening until after we got there and walked right into the middle of it one evening after dinner. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was the Year of the Dragon. Long ornate dragon tails, red banners and flags spinning in the fog, blazing, crackling fireworks in the drizzling rain.

Yes, it rained. And we visited the giant Old Navy that had just opened downtown, I think it might have been four floors, to buy rain jackets. I bought a mustard windbreaker with navy blue trim and sleeves that zip off. I think it’s for boating and sailing. I wear it in the cool Minnesota spring nights to ward off damp wind and dew when I zip along the Mississippi on my Honda Rebel.

We took refuge under a ledge and watched intently as hundreds of paraders walked by in costume. Kids were stacked on their parents’ shoulders. The longest dragon I had ever seen meandered down Grant Avenue and Kearny Street and I snap, snap, snapped my Canon Rebel SLR. That was back when film was still the norm. None of those pesky digital delays on the shutter. I got some good shots.

I read later that the fireworks and all the red are to ward off Nian, the mythological meat-eating beast from the mountains. He’s afraid of loud noises and bright colors. That’s how I felt last week coming off the silent retreat.

The Chinese calendar is lunasolar indicating moon phase and the time of the solar year. The first day of the new year containing a new moon is the Chinese New Year. I love that. I’m a Cancer. The Moon is my planet. In astrology, the Moon is still a planet. And so is Pluto.

Take a look at the night sky. There are all these parallel Universes operating right over and under each other. There is no one way to do anything. There is no one New Year, no one religion, no one way to write, no one way to live. We take snippets of what’s been passed down to us. And we run with it. Or slow walk, whichever we prefer.

I like to think of the world operating in stratified layers much like the rock formations I see in the Badlands. It makes me feel like there is a place for everyone.

Happy New Year.  

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

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“Hey, I was thinking, you ought to just publish your book.”

“I don’t have a book to publish.”

“Oh, well then, just write a book and find someone to publish it. You’re a great writer, I know someone will want to publish your book.”

“Well, that’s what I’m working on…writing a book.”

“Oh, good, what’s it about?”

“Well, no, I mean, I wrote an essay and once I finish that I’d like to get it published, and then maybe I’ll work on the book. I might use the essay as a launching point for the book.”

“What’s stopping you from just writing the book?”

“Well, it’s finding the time and figuring out the format of the book.”

“You’ll find the time, you always find the time.”

“Yeah, it’s true, so I guess maybe it’s more about the format.”

“I think you need to just do it.”

“I have been…what do you think I’ve been doing all this past year with the intensive and all my writing practice?”

“I don’t know… In the words of Nike, you need to just do it.”

“Yeah, OK, you’re right.”

“Good, cuz I really want to read your book.”

“OK, Patty, you’re going to read the book. Hey, do you want to read the essay in the mean time?”


“OK. Good-night.”


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It’s the Year of the Pig, I hear. Starting tomorrow. I think of pig, piggy, how I used to worry when I first started doing writing practice with this group, way back before we were bloggin’, that I was being too piggy. Taking up too much of the airwave.

Then I realized, Aw, they can always delete if they don’t want to read. Of course, I never delete. I used to delete when I wrote with a huge group; you have to. But with a small writing community, and all being writers whose writing draws me in, I never delete. Ever. And it never feels burdensome. It’s strange how on this eve of a new year, I know that writing has become an integral part of my life.

I’ve written for many years. Many, many years. I started my first journal when I was 12, I think. It was the year I got a tumor removed from my right knee. My sister, who was ten years older than me and doing student teaching in a small town, came home that summer with a book order for me that she’d gotten from Scholastic. I always remember the smell of a new book order, that paper binding odor, how there’s something fresh about it. And the shiny unbent, unbroken paperback book bindings. And the cool titles. My kids get book orders now in elementary school and it’s the same thing. Back then I got a Summer Diary, not a hard-backed one but a paperback, a mustard yellow cover with a drawing of a lock on it. Inside in the first few pages were stickers: A Joke, What I Read Today, My Secret, My Favorite Color, What I Learned Today, News, and so on. I would peel off a sticker and put it in the day’s entry. I had to always manufacture whatever thought or bit of information I wanted to go with the sticker. That part was my least favorite; my most favorite was just being able to write.

The Year of the Pig, and I feel abundant like a pig. Or does a pig feel abundant? I feel full and big and round of belly and heart. Pigs in the Chinese zodiac are said to be generous. I feel generous and grateful for others’ generosity. For writing that has taken hold in me. And me in it. I still have the little diary my sister gave me. After filling out about half of it, I got tired and stopped filling in the rest of the days of that summer. I guess after spending two weeks or so in bed post the surgery, during which I had little else to do but write, I lost interest. I don’t recall if I ever had another diary, at least not until I was 23. I did get one at the age of 23. I still have it. And since then, for more than two decades, I’ve written and written and written. Filled many diaries and journals and notebooks. And now computer screens.

I wonder what I would find if I went to a Chinese restaurant tonight. Would they all be full? I’m craving a potsticker.

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Gassho. I am so appreciative of deep listening. Thanks for your comments on Valentine.

By the way, I love the Poets.org website. I didn’t know they broke writers and workshops down by state. Good to know.

I did stumble on an interview on the same website with Donald Hall, Flying Revision’s Flag . Insightful – about the art of revision. Can be applied to all forms of writing.

Hall seems to be a serious revisionist. He said when he was twenty-five a poem took six months or a year to revise. Now, it takes two years to five. I find revising a lot about letting go. What to keep. What to drop. I’m starting to be able to feel in my body when something isn’t right. What I do from there, well, that’s the challenge.

Here’s another interview, Donald Hall, in conversation with Judith Moore, I found with Hall from 1998, four years after his wife, Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia. As writers we have to hold everything – eventually, we write it down.

Life at Eagle Pond: the Poetry of Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall

Friday, February 16th, 2007

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