Monday again

aliThis past week was the week of the poetry workshop at Squaw Valley, and here at my house, a poetry weekend following that format.  It was a wonderful weekend. I’m sure I’ll be posting something from the weekend soon–the work was exhilarating.  Meanwhile, here’s a poem from a poet who has been part of the staff at Squaw Valley in years past:

Zehra Begum

your ribs are thick ridges
but you do not eat.

your eyes are so tired
but you do not sleep.

you say you want to feel belief
but you do not pray.

Kazim, listen:

fruit out of dirt
is your proof.

folding into sleep
is the miracle. Continue reading “Monday again”

Poetry or Freecell?

Yesterday I read a few poems at this event, at the Expressions gallery in Berkeley near the Ashby BART.  It included several poets from Squaw Valley Community of Writers poetry workshop.

I’d decided to accept all invitations to read; I enjoy reading and it’s a way to test how a poem holds up. For joint readings, I usually stick to short poems with some humor. I read a few poems from Jade Suit, and a few new poems, including one I wrote yesterday (in keeping with the Squaw tradition).  I was editing right up until I read it, and am sure it will change further, but here it is in the form I read:

Ode to Freecell

According to my computer
I’ve played thirteen hundred and thirty-six games of Freecell
and won eleven hundred and eighty-seven.
I’ve gotten better over time.

It’s calming to watch the cards fit together
in a way the world never does.
Sometimes I go into a sort of trance of Freecell
each move the perfect sequential unlocking of the puzzle.
Other times, I just give up.

How can the world contain
debt as uncountable as the stars
and the golden hair of young corn
that glistens even in fog?
Rhetoric and bouillabaisse?
Scientists and Sharia law?

No wonder my fingers seek the keyboard
again and again
to watch
one more time
the cards stack neatly
one on top of the other
as if order were possible.

Narnia or poetry workshop?

As a child, I was always looking for the door at the back of the wardrobe to get into another world. I believed that I could be transported to Narnia if I just knew where to find the door. As an adult, the poetry workshop at Squaw Valley has been the closest to that magical world for me. I first went in 1986. It was a very small gathering then, perhaps 30 or 40 poets, divided into three workshops each day, taught by Bob Hass, Sharon Olds, and Galway Kinnell. Galway was the Director until a year or two ago, and his generous spirit shaped the experience (a spirit Bob Hass continues to manifest).

With four children and a demanding job, I hadn’t written a poem in years, and the first evening I discovered we were to write a poem that night, and read it in a workshop the next morning. The terror I felt was probably what I’d feel standing at the open door of a plane for my first parachute jump. But somehow, poetry was waiting patiently for me, and that week the poems kept coming, one after another.

The process at Squaw is simple: everyone, including the “staff poets” writes a new poem each day and reads it in the morning workshop. After each poet reads, someone jumps in and says something about what works in the poem for them. A brief discussion follows, with no criticism unless the poet asks for specific feedback on something. At first I thought, “How dumb to only say nice things.” And Dean Young, who has been a staff poet, sometimes refers to it as the “petting zoo.”

But these poems are fresh, and we don’t know each other’s work. Pointing out what is working in the poem does several things. It focuses the writers on their strengths. It encourages them to can keep moving in that direction. There really is no need to say what’s wrong; the focus on what’s working implies what isn’t. And poetry is so much a matter of personal taste–different things move different people. As Lucille Clifton, another staff poet, often quoted, “the house of poetry has many rooms.”

Most of all, though, the spirit of the workshop encourages experimentation. Writers feel safe. No one presumes to “teach” you how to write a poem. Instead, everyone is trying hard to do their best work. Of course we each want to impress everyone with our skill, that’s a given. But over the week, everyone’s work improves.
It’s thrilling to watch and to experience. It’s like living in a poem. Everything informs the process. The place itself is part of the magic, but most of it has to do with the indefinable nature of community–a temporary community, to be sure–but one that makes so much possible.

I’ve been back several times. This year, while I didn’t attend, I went for the final evening, an amazing dinner at the home of Barbara Hall. Oakley Hall was one of the founding forces of this program (there are fiction and screen-writing sessions, too, although these are managed differently). The Hall family, especially Brett Hall Jones, make the ongoing workshops a reality. After dinner, anyone who wants recites a poem from memory. Sometimes, with a familiar poem like Jaberwocky or Lake Isle of Innisfree, many poets join in. I love this experience. It seems to me like watching the living voice of poetry jump from throat to throat, sometimes in different languages, always with a different voice. So that’s where I’ve been.

As a bonus, I got to hear Bob Hass talk about prosody. Someone had asked what role rhyme, meter and form play in poetry, and Bob’s answer was essentially that poetry is made of what you know. The more widely you read, the more is available to you. If you are moved by a poem, you might explore it, analyze it to see how it’s done. He had a handout that started with a line from an Irving Berlin song that haunted him:

What’ll I do when you are far away?
When I am blue, what’ll I do?

He talked about the stresses in the phrase “What’ll I do,” a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones, then a final stress. This pattern is called a cradle, as the two stressed syllables “hold” the unstressed ones. It’s shape goes a long way to the power of these song lines.  If any of you want my notes, and the full handout, leave me a comment, and I’ll send them your way. Or you might want to hear Bob read one of my favorites of his poems.

Salon Saturday

For the past year or so, four of us have been hosting more-or-less quarterly salons–with letterpress invitations from Littoral Press and a diverse group of artists, poets, writers, and musicians attending and reading or performing or showing their work. Each of us gets 10 invitations, and about 30+ people attend. We’ve had everything from bronze and clay sculpture to handmade dresses to series of sketches and paintings to original music in addition to stories, poems, novel, play and memoir excerpts. Our only rule is no more than five minutes per person. Otherwise it just gets too long.

Yesterday happened (by coincidence) also to be the first day of the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, where three of the four of us met. This is a truly inspirational week in the Sierras, writing every day, and reading your fresh poem in workshops. I’ve been several times, and last time took one of my favorite signs, which we use now for the salon.

Our invitations say “inspired attire admired but not required,” and I usually wear a thrift shop item. This time was no exception.

The hat had a poofy furbelow on top that really deserves its own photo.








We had a strange artifact that had fallen out of a magazine called “Outsider 4/5” published by Loujon Press.  It was a pressed and laminated flower picked “within a mile of Geronimo’s grave.”

It had a letterpress note attached, explaining that it was not for sale, but was one of 500 distributed free (money would break the spell) with the hardcover edition of the magazine.  The note suggests you tap “dead center” seven times and say “I’m alive” something wild will happen to you within seven days “if you let it happen…”

Of course, I (and several others) walked to the center of the labyrinth and did so. On her way home, one guest already had something wild happen. As she unlocked her car door, she heard something behind her and turned to see a buck with a full head of antlers behind her!

I’d be happy to publish others’ contributions from the salon if anyone likes–just send them to me, or put a link in the comments. Here’s the poem I wrote that morning, inspired by my new hat:

Prayer or Question

I drop the carefully repaired refrigerator drawer
just as I’m about to insert it back into its slot
and I am suddenly in a Dean Young poem
where even the dictionary is agonizing
over meaning and objects have a singular
malevolence? I didn’t mean it
when I said this refrigerator is a piece of shit.
I take it back. Just let the drawer work
so that life can go back to normal.
Let normal be recognizable.
Let it be calm as a cat
curled on the red synthetic velour blanket
weaving its orange fur into the fabric
just by the impression of its body.
Let it be serviceable
as a hat to a pin,
though hats have fallen out of fashion.
Even rhyme can’t save them
with their dotted veils,
their frolicsome furbelows.
The spell check insists we have to frolic
without the help of the letter k,
its presence quirky as a kleptomaniac.
When you stand in the center of the outfield
you see everything baseball has to offer.
The grass is greener there.
They use a lot of chemicals,
paradoxically. No one wants to be out,
or miss out, out in the cold.
A refrigerator is a humming box
of cold in the center of the warmest room
in the house. Hum and function
so that I, too, may hum and function
after my fashion.

Another Loujon Press artifact is a letterpress edition of diary entries by Henry Miller, mostly about an artist named Hans Reichel, in Paris before the second world war (1937-1938). It’s a beautiful multicolored letterpress edition, with a final note by Henry Miller. The end of the note reads:

Out of this potpourri of food and fun some writing got done, some painting, and a lot of living. It’s hard now to tell which was more important. They went together, that is all I can say. And what better can one say? That his paintings are now coveted by collectors and museums means nothing to Reichel now. He would be just as wonderful if no one had ever heard of him.                               Henry Miller 5/8/66

I couldn’t have written a better description of our salon myself. I’ll post the Polenta Pizza recipe tomorrow.






Poems by heart

One year at the Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, Bob Hass gave a craft talk in which he said he had memorized his own poetry by driving around with a cassette of his poems. I’d been memorizing poems for a long time used this technique to memorize several dozen poems more (not my own, though). As a result, not only do I have a treasury of poems to get me through long lines and bad traffic, snippets of poems come to me just in the course of an ordinary day.

Walking down the street in spring, when the new leaves have just unfurled, I sometimes think of Tony Hoagland’s poem, A Color of the Sky, in which he calls the color of these leaves “the very tint of inexperience.”

As I come out of the tunnel on Highway 24 and see San Francisco gleaming white over the bay, I might think of Wordsworth’s lines:

“The city now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning, silent, bare.
Ships, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open to the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.”

And when my granddaughter complains of boredom, I think of Berryman’s wonderful dream song that begins:

“Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover, my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly), “Ever to confess you’re bored
means  you have no

Inner Resources.”

I refrain from quoting it to her, but it makes me smile.

Having an internal library of poems I love enriches my day, and will be a comfort if they every put me (like Christopher Smart) in solitary confinement. Here’s a poem about this:

Poems by Heart

The first I memorized was for Miss Underhill
in seventh grade: Frost’s woods.
Then Márgaret’s melodious grief,
like nothing I’d heard before,
like the anthem of my tribe.

I grabbed onto poetry as if
it were the round, white circle
of canvas-covered cork
thrown from the lifeguard’s chair
when they hauled me out,
and stood me on my feet,
still flailing.

The poems meant that somewhere
there had to be others like me.
They had left me a trail of words,
little candy lifesavers in rainbow colors,
and I ate them, one by one,
as I made my way
across the acres of suburban
athletic fields and sidewalks
to find them.