Monthly Archives: April 2013

Have You Read the Poetry of Linda Hogan?

Do you know the work of poet Linda Hogan?  I love her poetry.  With only two days left of National Poetry Month, I thought I’d share one of my favorite poems, written by Hogan.  The poem is from the “Hunger” section of The Book of Medicines. 


by Linda Hogan

There is a place at the center of earth

where one ocean dissolves inside the other

in a black and holy love;

It’s why the whales of one sea

know songs of the other,

why one things becomes something else

and sand falls down the hourglass

into another time.

Once I saw a fetal whale

on a black of shining ice.

Not yet whale, it still wore the shadow

of a human face, and fingers that had grown before the taking

back and turning into fin.

It was a child from the curving world of water turned square,

cold, small.

Sometimes the longing in me

comes from when I remember

the terrain of crossed beginnings

when whales lived on land

and we stepped out of water

to enter our lives in air.

Sometimes it’s from the spilled cup of a child

who passed through all the elements

into the human fold,

but when I turned him over

I saw that he did not want to live

in air.  He’d barely lost

the trace of gill slits

and already he was a member of the clan of crossings.

Like tides of water,

he wanted to turn back.

I spoke across elements

as he was leaving

and told him, Go.

I was like the wild horses

that night when fog lifted.

They were swimming across the river.

Dark was that water,

darker still the horses,

and then they were gone.


Poetry Prompt:

Write about the origins of life as you believe, imagine, or create them.  Don’t use Biblical language.  Find a fresh way to describe the beginning.

Here is Hogan reading from “The History of Red”:


Filed under Poetry, Writing prompt

The List You Need to Write a Memoir

I started working on my memoir an embarrassingly long time ago. When I started I thought I knew what a memoir was–after all, I’d read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It’s the story of Maya Angelou’s childhood.  OK, I could do that.  I didn’t have a similar experience–not even close–but I had my own events to write about.

What I didn’t realize when I started was that a memoir isn’t just telling what happened to me in chronological order.  The story is all in how you slice it, according to Tristine Rainer (I’ve written about her great advice several times).

In order to write a memoir I had to figure these things out:

  1. Exactly what story I wanted to tell.  After all, I have had a full life and could probably mine several books out of it.  To focus on one particular story, I took the advice of an instructor and wrote a one sentence description of my story.  It wasn’t a Faulknerian sentence either.  Just one concise sentence that sums up what my book is about.
  2. What scenes belong in the book and which ones don’t.  I wrote quite a few scenes that don’t belong in the book.  But what the heck, they make good fodder to write blog posts from ;).  Or I can save them for a second book.  Writing the scenes was valuable, though, because they primed the pump of memory.  The more I wrote, the more I remembered.
  3. How to structure the story.  The problem with real life is it isn’t well-paced.  It comes in long stretches–childhood, adolescence, young adult life, etc.  There are threads which reach back and forth across your life, further complicating the process of ordering the book.  I found structure to be the most difficult part of writing my memoir so far.
  4. What to do with advice that doesn’t fit.  I’ve gotten a lot of it.  My first memoir instructor said something like NO FLASHBACKS EVER.  That drove me nuts. It took me four years to read Bernard Cooper’s The Bill From My Father and get his tacit endorsement of flashbacks to move forward with my structure.  That instructor also told me to write my book in the present tense.  While I have a couple of sections which are in present tense for effect, I discovered that it’s too difficult to tell a book-length story of any complexity in the present tense.  So I eventually chucked both pieces of advice.
  5. What to do about backstory.  I’m still figuring this out.  I’ve been weaving past and present together, and this is helping, but there is a lot of information that is getting shoved aside that has to be conveyed to the reader.  And yet by moving between scene and summary in rhythm, there still isn’t much room to cover summary, especially when even very tangible concrete descriptive (whatever you want to call it) summary takes up a lot of room, albeit not nearly as much room as scene.
  • What do or did you need to figure out for your own writing?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

Cross-post: “The Importance of Story”

Today I wrote this post for the adoption blog called Don’t We Look Alike? that I write with my daughter, but it also seemed to connect with this blog as it concerns the notion of story.

“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” ― Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

Everybody and everything has a story.  According to Terry Pratchett, we are all shaped by stories.  This quote might mean that reading a variety of stories helps develop us into who we are.  But, in fact, we are shaped even more by the stories which are unique to our selves.

We create stories out of our complex lives.  To understand ourselves and others around us, we tell ourselves stories that make some sense out of it all.

As Patrick Rothfuss puts it:

“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”

Most of us come to our consciousness with family stories told to us by relatives.  Even in families which are reticent to talk about the past, there is a pattern which is story in hearing that one has the same stubborn streak as one’s father and that he has hammer toes because his mother couldn’t afford to buy him new shoes when his feet grew.  These elements become part of the story of the child.

Some people have stories which are missing big gaps.  Imagine having amnesia in your fourth grade year.  You can remember the rest of your life, but there is a hole where an entire year should be.  Many adoptees have a hole larger than this.  If an adoptee was not part of an open adoption, it’s probable that she was not given much information about who her birth parents were, what their stories were, and what their lives were like when she was not yet born.

The person who was adopted might not know anything about her own birth or what her life was like as an infant.  When there is information shared, it can be sparse and not tied into a narrative.  It might not even be accurate.  It could be lies.

I was not adopted, and I have been told plenty of family stories.  I grew up with family stories and photos.  Many of the dots were connected for me.  Recently I’ve done some genealogical research, and it astonishes me how some of the stories I was told turned out not to be accurate.  However, the most fundamental information has been true, unlike that for some adoptees.

My children were adopted as babies in international adoptions.  We received some pages of information from the agency.  Mainly, we learned about their medical exam results while living in the orphanage (son) or with the foster family (daughter). We learned their weight and health when they were brought to Holt. But there is also information on the charts listing the ages and education levels of their birth parents, and what areas they came from.  When we read these pages with our case worker, she filled in information, providing us with story fragments.

I took all the information we had been given—both written and oral, guesses and facts—and wrote up stories for both children, providing them with a story which pre-dates their lives in our family.

It seemed important that they have their own stories.

“[T]here’s a story behind everything. How a picture got on a wall. How a scar got on your face. Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin.” ― Mitch Albom, For One More Day

Think of this: “behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begin” [my italics].

So while it seems important that the kids have their own stories, these stories had to begin with the stories of their birth mothers.

Next time you wonder why many adoptees search for their birth families and wish to to learn information about these families, remember that you are who you are because you have your own story.  They are only searching for part of their story, a story that is important to their very identity.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

For the Peanut-Crunching Crowd

It’s true that I own a lot of books. I don’t like the word hoarder, but once a book comes into my possession, I don’t care to give it up. I take good care of them, so why shouldn’t they gravitate toward me?

I don’t steal books, though. When I borrow a book from a friend, I put it in a large Baggie so that I don’t damage the cover, and I eventually give it back.  I can’t say that for everyone who has borrowed from me.  You know who you are.

So it’s very unusual for me to damage a book.  That said, I own a book I have read far too many times, and it looks it.    I purchased my version of Sylvia Plath’s The Collected Poems at least two different book designs ago, probably in the 80s.  I’ve damaged this book by loving it–the spine is broken and sections of poems spill out by accident. Old post-it notes, marking poems I’ve studied or researched or just love more than the others, hang out the top.

For my master’s in English, I explicated (def: rip apart with intentions to destroy an indestructible poem) a Sylvia Plath poem “Fever 103.”  At the time I was working on it, I found an old LP in the university library with Plath reading her own poems.  I also ordered earlier drafts of “Fever 103” from the Smith Library and discovered excised lines which tickled me no end.

Today the recording is readily available, but back then I felt as if I’d discovered the Holy Sylvia Grail.

Disclaimer:  I am not, nor have I ever been, a Plath groupie.  Thank you for understanding and accepting that fact.

Have you ever heard Plath read her own poems?  If you haven’t  you are in for a treat.  Here are “Fever 103,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Daddy.”


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Poetry, Vintage American culture

Can You Handle One More Nerdy Activity Post?

My husband and I visit antique malls and flea markets from time to time. He’s got a soda pop memorabilia collection, and I am always on the hunt for a new-old doll.

It’s gotten very difficult to find good signs and dolls in shops–at least out west where we are. Maybe back east they still carry these things in brick-and-mortar buildings. But what we are after has mainly moved to eBay and other internet sources.

The antique stores still have plenty of tchotchkes, especially ceramics of all type. Those don’t make me sad, but there is one ubiquitous offering which depresses me every time. It’s that bin of old sheet music.

They remind me of something nearly vanished from the culture: the active human connection with new music. By active I don’t mean passively buying iTunes for your iPod and plugging in. In an era when many people made music in their own homes, to promote new songs, music publishers hired salespeople/musicians called pluggers to demonstrate the music.

As ancient as I feel, I wasn’t actually around for those days, so my experience stems from watching Judy Garland in In the Good Old Summertime.

You can easily find old sheet music from movies, Broadway shows, popular singers of the day.  Usually, a particular stack has a bias toward a certain type of music.

Deanna Durbin, movie star

Deanna Durbin, movie star

Rudy Vallee First 20th c. pop star

Rudy Vallee
First 20th c. pop star

from the film 42nd Street

from the film 42nd Street

If you’re interested in finding specific vintage sheet music, Duke University has an archive for sheet music from the period 1850-1920.  Here are instructions from their website on ordering reproductions:

For information about obtaining reproductions of items in Duke University’s Sheet Music Collection, please contact the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

Please include the Title of the piece and its Call/Reproduction Number in all requests.

Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
Duke University Box 90185
Durham, North Carolina 27708-0185
Telephone: (919) 660-5822
Fax: (919) 660-5934

For further information, see Contact Information* for the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, at Duke University.

If you want to learn more about the history of sheet music, there is a great website which explains its longer history, as well as gives an opinion about music stores and pluggers which somewhat disagrees with what is presented in the movie above.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing prompt

More Nerdy Activities

I’ve got some writing projects going on right now that have time constraints.  Writing my book is mainly an open-ended, not-time-schedule-driven endeavor, but other writing must get done by the deadlines (real and self-imposed).  Still, I can’t write for too long a period at a time as I get burned out really fast.  Lucky for me, it’s spring and there are a lot of reasons to pull out my camera.

Yesterday I went to the grocery store with my husband. While I followed him out (he had parked after dropping me off, so I didn’t know where the car was), I caught sight of the church next door.  The sunlight was shining through the super-cool and at-risk-for-demolition thingie on top of the building.  So I pulled out my always-handy camera and started snapping shots.  When I was done, I kept walking to the car.  That’s when I heard a honking waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay behind me.  It was hubby, watching me walk mindlessly in the wrong direction.

When I got in the car laughing hysterically at myself, he (lovingly) said, “You’re such a nerd.  Who do you think you are?  Georgia O’Keeffe?”

I said NO because everybody knows that Georgia O’Keeffe was a painter and photography model, not a photographer.  (Ok, I admit that’s just me being a smart mouth.  I am–as you can see–no photographer, but I am a nerd with a camera, and that’s all I aspire to be).

In keeping with O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers and of Arizona, here are the flowers I saw this week:

Arizona flowers April 2013

Arizona flowers April 2013


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Photographs

Look Outward, Writer

Here’s a lovely reminder that writers need to turn outward, not just inward.  In writing about “the other,” one writes the self.

“We think that to find ourselves we need turn inward, examining the intricacies of origin, the shaping forces of personality.  But ‘I’ is just as much to be found in the world; looking outward, we experience the one who does the seeing.  Say what you see and you experience yourself through your style of seeing and saying.”

That quote is by Mark Doty in Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

Still Life with a Glass and Oysters
Jan Davidsz de Heem (Dutch, Utrecht 1606–1683/84 Antwerp)


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

Hey, You, Where Did You Get That Poem?

You can find a lot of good books about writing poetry.  They usually are divided into chapters such as metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, and image.  

But Kenneth Koch approached the subject a little differently.  He theorized that to teach poetry writing to children, you had only to teach them to tap into their imaginations and to give them quality poems to read.

For his simpler book Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, he created practical writing prompts for kids.   Chapters include Class Collaborations, Wishes, Comparisons, Noises, Dreams, and Poems Written While Listening to Music.  It’s exciting just to read the titles.  I want to sit in his class and start writing.

So that’s what I do, sort of—I use his ideas for poems.  After all, aren’t these great prompts for adult poets, as well?

Still, Koch knew that kids—and adults—couldn’t just stop there.  To prime our mental pumps, we have to read quality poetry.  The more we read, while keeping the gates to our imagination wide open, the more we can grow as poets.  Of course, in the circle of reading and writing, by writing our own poetry, we enrich our reading experience of the poetic greats.

In Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, Koch structures this interconnection of reading and writing around ten poems by masters such as Blake, Donne, Whitman, Steven, Ashbery, and Rimbaud.  I’m sorry to say that he did only use poems by male poets.  I’m not going to make any excuses about that tremendous oversight.  Ahem, let’s continue.

Koch introduced the children to Blake’s poem “The Tyger.”

He didn’t want them to stumble over Blake’s “language and syntax,” so he tried to connect the poem to the experiences of the kids, asking questions, such as had they seen a dog’s eyes glowing in the dark.

Here is the prompt he eventually gave them, and it’s one you can use too:

Write a poem in which you are talking to a beautiful and mysterious creature and you can ask it anything you want—anything.  You have the power to do this because you can speak its secret language.


Filed under Poetry, Writing prompt

A Sample from National Poetry Month


National Poetry Month

by Elaine Equi
When a poem
speaks by itself,
it has a spark

and can be considered
part of a divine

Sometimes the poem weaves
like a basket around
two loaves of yellow bread.

"Break off a piece
of this April with its
raisin nipples," it says. 

"And chew them slowly
under your pillow.
You belong in bed with me."

On the other hand,
when a poem speaks
in the voice of a celebrity

it is called television
or a movie.
"There is nothing to see,"

say Robert De Niro,
though his poem bleeds
all along the edges

like a puddle 
crudely outlined
with yellow tape

at the crime scene
of spring.
"It is an old poem," he adds."And besides,
I was very young
when I made it."


Filed under Poetry

Cruel April’s Fool

Welcome to National Poetry Month!  Dedicating April to poetry is a great way to remind us to enjoy the wealth of poetry we can turn to for sustenance.

One of best known poems of the early 20th century is T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.”  The first few words, “April is the cruellest month,” have become part of the language, even if many people don’t recognize where they come from.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept
us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with
dried tubers.

When you read the second part, about how winter kept us blanketed in forgetfulness, it comes clear why April which awakens us to life by stirring both our memories and our desires, can be seen as cruel.

I’ve never been one to like being kept in the haze of winter as I delight in that which flourishes when the spring rain nourishes those “dull roots.”  Sometimes what grows is dangerous or sad, but I’m willing to take that risk. In some ways, I’m just a fool for life ;).  And a fool for poetry, too.

Either because photos are poems–or just because–here are some photos of northern California spring splendor I took in March, when California spring really begins:

This last photo shows the blossoming almond trees in the background.  For more on the almond trees, here is a photo and short-short piece on Cowbird.


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Poetry