Monthly Archives: December 2014

You Know What Makes Me Mad?

I’m so sorry that my blog reading has lagged lately. I’m desperately trying to get that book draft done for Stanford by the end of the month/year! I promise I will back in the swing of things very soon!

When I was in California last time I saw this beautiful tree with berries. I have no idea what kind of tree it is.

On the long and boring ride (through the desert) back from California, I suddenly remembered my pet peeve. Usually when people talk about pet peeves, I agree with some of what they say, but not all. But I don’t usually think in terms of having a pet peeve. Until I realized I do have one.

It’s when someone borrows a book from me and doesn’t return it!

Gah, I really hate that.

When I was a kid I had two Judy Bolton books. Do you know what those are? They are like Nancy Drew, but way better. Judy was a redhead with two cute boyfriends (sometimes at the same time). The books were written by an actual writer, Margaret Sutton, not a team of ghost writers (like Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys). A girl in my neighborhood who I had a very short-lived friendship with borrowed one of my two JB books. I had already read it twice, but loved it. She didn’t return it. I started to get very anxious about the book, and eventually my dad went over to her house to ask for it back. There were only children at home when we got there, and they refused to let my dad in the house, although he was very insistent. I never did get it back. It wasn’t replaceable as the book, I’m pretty sure, was out of print. It had been one of my mother’s books.

When I was in junior high I listened to John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley (memoir or fiction? that would be another post!) read (by whom, I can’t remember) on the radio and loved it. So when I was in high school I selected his Grapes of Wrath. Although the book was dark and sad, I loved it and loaned it to the boy who sat in front of me in history class. He refused to give me the book back. His backyard backed up to my neighborhood and I used to go by the back of his house and throw it dirty looks.

Much more recently I loaned (against my better judgment) my copy of Marni Nixon’s autobiography to my piano teacher. I LOVED that book as I have been a long time fan of Nixon’s. She was the singing voice for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr in The King and I, and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. My teacher never returned the book. I quit piano.


I know this is dumb. Books are just THINGS. People are more important than books.


Anybody else this nutty about their books? Please ‘fess up.



Filed under Books, California, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Photographs, Writing

Christmas from the Dumpster

When I was five, Mom had a few days off work over Christmas. She rolled out sugar cookie dough and let me cut out Christmas trees and reindeer with little tin cookie cutters. I sprinkled them with colored sugar before she slipped the trays into the oven.

She led me before the cardboard fireplace hung with our Christmas stockings and pulled out a Bible, which she had marked with scraps of paper tucked here and there. She read the Christmas story to me, but it was one she created herself by mixing the versions in a way that was pleasing to her. The story of the baby Jesus brought tears to Mom’s eyes. We bowed our heads and clasped our hands together and prayed a prayer from my Little Golden Book.

Dad walked in the door, carrying a box. I thought it would be a Christmas present he planned to wrap downstairs on the ping pong table which he had set up with all his gift wrapping materials and tools. But it turned out to be a box he had discovered in a school dumpster.

“I had to get out of my truck because the dumpster was so full they had boxes spilling out all over. That’s when I spotted this.” Dad crooked his index finger for me to follow and then glanced back at me. “It’s books. Maybe you can use them now that you’re in school.” Although I had only started school in September, I already knew how to read.Recently I asked my mother if she taught me to read with flashcards, the way she did my younger brother, but she didn’t remember. When I was a toddler I knew how to spell ice cream and by age 5 I could read children’s series books, but how I got from point A to B, I don’t know.

I skipped down the hall behind Dad. Peeking into the box, I saw outdated textbooks from the forties. I couldn’t wait to open them and was glad when my father left the room. When I lifted the books out of the box, they smelled like real school, not like kindergarten where you have to take a nap and can’t read. I was glad Dad drove a garbage truck and could find presents for me.

The second-grade reader had a story where the porridge left unattended on the stove poured onto the floor, out the door, and down the hill. I tried to skim and sample each book. Some of the books had poems, and they were all illustrated with water colors. Some, in the manner of Walter Crane illustrations, featured black, white, and orange.

At the bottom of the box, missing its paper jacket and like a lot of old books covered in a plain green fabric, was a fairy tale book. The stories of witches and poor sons and goblins in this book opened my mind to the world of possibilities. I would only have the book for a year because eventually it would disappear (care of my mother). Some of the stories had a habit of giving me nightmares (thank you, Brothers Grimm). Nevertheless, I am forever grateful that I had the book long enough for the fire of my imagination to be lit.


Filed under Books, Children's Literature, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing

A Cranky Reader on Modern Poetry

I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts about poetry by guest bloggers Carla McGill, Carol Bachofner, and Cullen Bailey Burns. After those C names and for the final post in this series of poetry talks by guest bloggers comes a D name, Deborah J. Brasket who blogs at Living on the Edge of the Wild. Enjoy!

by Guest Blogger Deborah J. Brasket

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry, how some moves me and some not at all. Reading recent issues of some prestigious journals, I found not one poem—not one—moved me. Amazing!

Most seemed like intellectual exercises or obtuse offerings of random thoughts and images. None engaged me intellectually, or stimulated my sensibilities, or even challenged me—let alone invited me—to a second reading. Instead they were studies in disappointment. I left them unfulfilled, still hungry and, admittedly, cranky.

Is it me? Is it them? Sigh.

Just what is it I crave from poetry?

Wallace Stevens once famously said: “You can’t get the news from poems, but men die every day for lack of what is found there.”

That’s what I want: The thing we die from lack of. That’s why I read poetry. What I look for in other works of art too—in prose and painting and music that rise to the level of poetry.

I want what Emily Dickinson referred to when she says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Something that tickles the hindermost parts of my brain, where I feel the synapses stretch and snap, reaching toward something just past my grasp.

I want what T.S. Elliot meant to when he writes that “poetry is a raid on the inarticulate.” Something dark and dormant, lying just below consciousness, rising into the light: a curved fin, a humped back, gliding momentarily along the surface of thought before dipping below again.

We have all felt that, I’m sure. Something deep and delicious, once known and now forgotten, woken momentarily. Something within us re-ignited, flashing briefly before dissolving into darkness again.

In “Ars Poetica,” Archibald MacLeish says: “A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit.”

He says: “A poem should be wordless / As the flight of birds.”

He says:

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

Reading his poem, I’m with him. I’m saying: Yes!

But then he almost ruins it with the last two lines:

A poem should not mean
But be.

Pointing to something static. Not in motion. Art for art’s sake. An artifact showcased in a museum.

Gwendolyn Brooks writes:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
And it is easier to stay at home,
The nice beer ready.

If it doesn’t make us squirm, if it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t urge voyages, is it art? Is it poetry?

Stevens calls modern poetry “the poem of the mind.” It’s “the act of finding what will suffice.”

He says:

It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.

A poem must construct something that it inhabits, that speaks to the reader, in the “delicatest ear of the mind,” “exactly, that which it wants to hear,” what the reader, that invisible audience, wants to hear—which is not the play, not the poem, but “itself.” Itself “expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two emotions becoming one.”

It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

Stevens is saying that a poem can no more “be” than “mean.” Rather, it must act. It must unite poet and reader in the act of finding what will suffice.

It is not static: It is “a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing.” It is always moving. It moves us to capture it in its passing. It moves us beyond ourselves, where the top of our head lifts away and there we go unbounded, grasping for just a brief moment what lies always, already, just beyond our grasp.

That which suffices. That which the lack thereof we die of every day. That’s what I’m looking for when I read poetry.

I want to feel my synapses snapping.

Deborah J. Brasket is a writer working on a novel and short story collection. She has an Masters in English and taught college composition and literature courses for many years near her home on the central coast of California. She features some of her poetry on her blog Living on the Edge of the Wild, where she writes about nature, writing, art, literature, and her travels sailing around the world with her family. Some of her work can also be found at


Filed under Books, Essay, Literary Journals, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Writing

Prayer Begging

As I’ve mentioned before this was going to be a crazy month with me trying to get a book draft done by month end (for my Stanford certificate) and the IRS audit, etc. Well, as one thing after another got stacked up, I didn’t think I would be able to handle the deadlines.

That’s always when things get worse. Last night my father was at the ER with chest pains. It turns out that he had Aortic Dissection.  According to MedlinePlus:

Aortic dissection is a serious condition in which there is a tear in the wall of the major artery carrying blood out of the heart (aorta). As the tear extends along the wall of the aorta, blood can flow in between the layers of the blood vessel wall (dissection). This can lead to aortic rupture or decreased blood flow (ischemia) to organs.

They had to perform emergency surgery all last night, putting in a 1 1/4″ dacron tube in place of part of the aorta. They started at 10:30 PM and ended seven hours later. The thoracic surgeon had been up for 24 hours by the time the surgery was over. Dad is in recovery today, but they are keeping him sedated (all day today) until his vitals stabilize.

This is extremely major open-heart surgery for an 86-year-old (well, he turns 86 in 9 days) who has less than half a functioning kidney.

As the surgeon explained to my mother, two celebrities have had this exact medical condition–and they both passed away from it.

One was John Ritter. Wikipedia describes his death from aortic dissection this way:

On September 11, 2003, Ritter fell ill while rehearsing for 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. He began sweating profusely, vomiting and complained of having chest pains. He was taken across the street to the Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center. Physicians misdiagnosed Ritter and treated him for a heart attack, however his condition worsened. Physicians then diagnosed Ritter with an aortic dissection. Ritter died during surgery to repair the dissection at 10:48 p.m, six days before his 55th birthday.


The other celebrity was Lucille Ball. There is some misinformation online about her death. She survived the dissection repair, unlike Ritter, but then it later ruptured and she died at age 77.



I probably won’t respond to comments on this post, but I would appreciate your prayers, thoughts, healing energies, and virtual hugs for my dad and my family.


Filed under Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction

Being Confused

Today I want to introduce a wonderful poet, Cullen Bailey Burns. Cullen and I go way back. We met in the MFA program at Western Michigan University. Since then Cullen has published two gorgeous poetry collections. Her most recent is Slip, out just this year.

by Guest Blogger Cullen Bailey Burns

Most of us hate the feeling of confusion; I know I do. In fact, confusion often causes a feeling of panic in me. In reading poetry, however, I have learned to look forward to and embrace confusion. The first moments when a poem resists me as I read it bring me to life and into curiosity in ways I find hard to explain. Take for example the wonderful Mary Szybist’s “The Troubadours, Etc.

The title catches me off-guard at the start. Isn’t there some rule about not using “etc.” in titles, that throwaway word? Then the first line, “Just for this evening, let’s not mock them.” I don’t know who the speaker is; I am not certain who the “them” is and I don’t know why we would be mocking to begin with. I am also confused by my complicity implied with the casual “let’s.” My confusion eases a bit in the next lines, when it becomes clear they are the troubadours, but arises again in the one-line stanza “At least they had ideas about love.”

Again, the implication here is that someone (the reader? the couple we meet in the next lines?) does not have ideas about love. As the poem becomes more personal, I understand the situation: a couple is driving west, the speaker meditating on distance, time, the meaning (possibility?) of love. In a series of moves that keep me off balance, the poem addresses a wide range of subjects, some visible to the speaker as she travels and some pulled from memory.

Toward the end of the poem, the speaker asks a series of questions, beginning with “At what point is something gone completely?” The “something” could be many things: passenger pigeons. Troubadours. Pilgrims. Love. Because the poet has so skillfully filled the poem with possibilities, the question can be about each of her subjects/all of her subjects at once.

And that’s the thing about confusion. Our minds’ desire to pin meaning down hard and fast is a desire for simplicity: this + that = something beautiful and smart. Isn’t that formula of many poems? But the best poems require us to linger in the space of not completely understanding, where we find many bolder, harder options. A poem could be about love (most poems are) but also about what passes, what we destroy, what we are unsatisfied with. This poem ends: “Then try, try to come closer–/my wonderful and less than.” In its unfinished comparison, this line refuses to explain itself, and mimics the distant horizon the couple travels toward, unreachable. As are the answers to our hardest questions about love and belief.

Ok, so that’s all well and good, you say, but what about writing? How does confusion help us write better? I would say this: we need to leave space. What’s brave about Szybist’s poem is that it trusts the reader will follow its twists and leaps, without a particular end in sight. Often when I write, I am so very tempted to tie everything up at the end in a lovely bow. “See, reader, what I’m doing here? See what this means?” How many years it has taken me to step back, let the poem be, trust that while my images and language must be as clear and tight as possible, meaning will be made in the reader.

Does not belong in a poem


Don’t mistake me. I am not arguing that a bunch of random images can mean just anything or that the writer should not understand or carefully construct the poem’s movement. I am not suggesting that a poem means anything a reader wants it to. But surprise, a temporary loss of our footing on the slope of a first reading, that’s good stuff. And a reader only gets that thrill if the writer leaves space for it.

Cullen Bailey Burns


Filed under Books, Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Writing

Break Out, Go Ahead and Do It: Part II

Last week I introduced you to indigenous poet Carol Bachofner. She has published four excellent books of poetry. Check out her poetry! Part I can be found here.

In Part II, learn Carol’s original process for writing “something else” sonnets. Don’t know what those are? Read ahead . . . .

by guest blogger, poet Carol Bachofner

A poem Carol wrote that illustrates the breaking out she discusses

 Why Hang Out in Bookstores; a something else sonnet

There are other ways to take on the sonnet form and make it serve a different purpose. I recently had another breakthrough, courtesy of an unwitting Sherman Alexie. Visiting our daughter and her family in Seattle, I had one non-family wish of the trip: to spend some quantity and quality time at Elliott Bay Books, alone. I always make a beeline to the poetry section of any bookstore to see what’s new that I might not have seen at home. I found two books that really got my attention, my sustained attention. The first book is The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (ed. Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek, 2010) and the other is Alexie’s latest poetry collection, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned (Hanging Loose Press, 2014). These book finds changed my view of prose poetry. Utterly changed. DRAT!!! Just when I was getting comfortable again! But it is why we hang out in bookstores, to be changed.

I confess that previously I have eschewed prose poetry, claiming loudly to all who would listen that this alleged form is nonexistent. Why do I do that? My literary protestations almost always lead to changing my mind about what I am avoiding or rejecting. On this particular lovely fall day in Seattle I was to be challenged yet again. I would have to face the fact that this form is real, to accept the fact that if Sherman Alexie was writing in this so-called “form,” I would have to see why. I was, from that moment, on the fast track to writing one or more prose poems myself. How could this happen? Prose was always prose and poetry always poetry. I was SURE of that. Until now. As a narrative writer, I knew I was always straddling the two worlds, but I knew somehow where the borders were. and I did not think those borders were crossable.

Where the breakthrough came for me was somewhere in the middle of Alexie’s book, the place where he starting labeling poems as “sonnet” when they clearly looked like prose to me. Have you ever become aware of a slight manic buzzing in your head when you are about to discover something new for yourself, ready to disembark from the safe ship of your life and wobble on the dock? I could feel myself getting hot all over, hearing the buzz, and feeling a twitch in my left eye. Uh-oh.

I tried to find where in his “sonnets” there was something sonnet. What I found was a “something else sonnet,” a combination of prose and poetry that spoke to me. Loudly. Profoundly. He was laying it out in a way that seemed properly improper. No worries over rhyme scheme (have you ever balked at the use of “scheme” as if it is some kind of a trick?) and no worries about where to break a line or where to put the turn or whether to put a turn at all. Instead of 14 clearly defined lines, he dared to make 14 segments of thought, of wondering, of action. Yes, 14 segments that said something without restriction. Oh my. Oh dear. Oh my. I had to try this.

Suddenly I was writing prose that felt more like poetry to me than anything I’d written in a while. Suddenly I was writing poetry that seemed more real, more honest. I was wobbling on the dock and dying to jump off and swim.

Then the inevitable questions for myself began flooding in. What was going to be MY take on this? How would I make something as real as Alexie, without being a poser, a fake, a phoney? It wouldn’t be easy to adapt my previous thinking to this new thing I’d so long rejected. But I knew I was comfortable with sonnets. I was comfortable with every aspect of sonnets. I was also very comfortable with narrative. So there. I had to jump.

At first I thought this meant I could just freewheel it, abandon all traditional aspects of the sonnet. But I had no desire to just throw myself into a sort of “freefall abyss.” I took a few deep breaths and began thinking of what parts of sonnets I might use to my purposes and how far into prose I wanted to venture. The more I pondered, the more one thought came to me: with the skills I possess as a poet, as a somewhat-formalist, I can combine prose and the sonnet, one of poetry’s most lasting forms and make something new for myself.

As I waded out into the deeper waters of form deconstruction, I felt a bit like an inventor. The process I devised is a basic guideline, a first way in. I chose to meld prose and the sonnet form in a way that was different but felt at least a little familiar. I needed my own process to serve as an entrance. Here is my initial process, one I have now abandoned as I continue to grow comfortable with this new “something else sonnet” form.

A Process Toward Writing a “Something Else Sonnet”

1. I decided to go by way of strong words, nouns and verbs. I elected to choose 14 nouns that are somewhat thematically connected. The words I chose are all words of restriction and stoppage and alienation. My theme (loose) is that of being held back or cordoned off from love. You will see my words in bold in the example below.

2. I set off in a direction, toward a theme or idea. I figured I could always reset my direction if the initial attempt was a wild goose chase. I did reset a couple times, but did not fully abandon the original impetus or word list.

3. I chose to follow Alexie in numbering each section (and in using sections or fragments rather than anything approaching lineation. After all, this was PROSE poetry. Beginning with the number 1, using what I determined to be the “best” word from my list of words, I created the first section/fragment.

4. At the place in that first bit of thought where my mind felt a bit like jumping, I put a period and wrote the number 2. After that I let myself leap (free association is the thing here) and used another word from the list. I found it helpful to cross off each word used to make sure I used all fourteen.

5. Repeating this process, paying no attention at all to where numbers landed, I wrote the whole poem as a paragraph with parts. Remember that any numbered portion may contain more than one sentence or fragment. It may be a bit self-contained with one major leap or it may slide into a transition as the piece nears its end, making the next leap smoother.

6. I also began to consider that I might keep going after number 14 and run the poem onward a bit, ending with a rhymed couplet; I did do this in the example below. I wondered as I wrote whether the poem wanted a somewhat traditional volta and where. In the example below, I came to see that the poem wanted to pivot a bit at line./section 9, a pretty traditional thing for a nontraditional sonnet.

NOTE: In the following example, I have bolded the nouns from my word list; these do not remain bolded outside of this example.

Love is Monstrous(ly) Wonderful(ly) Bordered, a prose sonnet

1. Natural barriers could be the colors of love, red lips shine, bruise-blue or some psychedelic bursts of argument hues at the edge of love’s known world. 2. Sterile areas pop up like rabbits. You want to go there to be safe, to be gravid with love. 3. Ditches burrow themselves into sidewalks where lovers pace, submerge to begin their travel along wrist-like veins recently scissored open in desperation. 4. You can achieve closure that way. Real closure. The slamming of the garden gate on too-rusted hinges made furious by rain. The door-bang of a car, locking itself with the keys still in the ignition. You learn how to leave and how to stay. 5. Love opens and closes on everyone eventually, even if no one hears it happening. Love maintains its elastic geography this way. 6. You cannot escape into a security zone to avoid it. 7. Even though you don’t recognize it, your heart is a sovereign state. 8. It has a seam-line of tissue paper tears. Rain will open up in it, open you eventually. 9. You’ll soon be seen at the checkpoint, tourist visa in your breast pocket, flashlight between your teeth. 10. You will head back to the colors of love and sketches you made of it at the blockade. It’s a secret. It is invincible ink. 11. Cruelty is the killing ground. 12. Vault over its borders. Ping between love and its doppelgänger. 13. Roadblock ahead! Drive. Run. 14. Decide to burn down the separation fence. 15. This is what you need to know about love and disaster, about a heart full of tacks. 16. Once you fill your suitcase, you get the monster off your back.

So, let’s review what has happened here that makes this a sonnet:

1. 14 somethings + couplet
2. volta at or near section 9. — of note: key words/phrases of the turn include checkpoint, head back
3. rhymed couplet at the end (though not metrical, it is musical)

We can see what makes this a sonnet and what makes this prose as well. The narrative is sacrosanct in the form, the combining of two forms. It is a hybrid that works well for me as a storyteller and poet. I owe it all to my obsession with hanging out in bookstores. Here is another example of story preserved as a brief prose poem, a sonnet that defies the usual end-rhymed final couplet. Find the turn, if any. Ask what makes this prose piece a sonnet.

Living On, a prose sonnet

1. From a waterfall 12 feet straight down, into 2 feet of water 2. Swept off like leaves ready to die. 3. Never thought about death then. Never thought about life then. All the same to me. 4. Carried to safety by a Paiute, slung sack on his back. Now a piece of him, he’s me too just that way; how I think of it. Carry me, I carry you. 5. The tee shirt he stripped from his back I wear as he wore me. American Indian Dance Theater. 6. I dance. I sway and stomp like the wind trees or the river that caught me. 7. Live on or die. 8. Be Indian. Be not Indian. You don’t get to decide. 9. If you break a bone, pray for all other bones. You will heal 4 people that way. 10. One of them will heal you. 11. The river didn’t want to feel so empty that day. 12. Wanted to fill itself with something that needed healing. 13. Indian Canyon ceremony, sweat running like the river. 14. Grandmothers and Grandfathers yielding to the fire. Me — natal, naked, and ready to live on.

From the Body, sonnets also shall emerge

Recently someone posted a meme on Facebook that was a pun in picture form, a line drawing of a human hip, with the caption: Hip Poetry. A child of the 60s, it tickled me to see this punning of the phrase Hip Poetry. Thinking of the beat poets, I wanted to do something creative in response to the meme, so I decided a contemporary prose sonnet to honor the beauty of the structure of the body, while keeping the humor of the drawing and its caption. I went with a beginning section that began the combination of bone and tone. I allowed myself to flex my verbal musculature and pun, rhyme a little (final couplet), and use marks of punctuation [brackets] wherever that felt organic, seemed to fit. I even included a line from a satire album from the 60s (see section 6). The pure pleasure I derived from creating this sonnet, this prose thing, is immeasurable. I hope you enjoy it too.

Poetry From the Hip, a prose sonnet

1. It’s a body thing, a guts and sinew and bone thing. No one comes to poetry without a body on fire. Flames of language consume the muscle, jerk the nerves, hum in the skull. 2. It’s the hip, that ball and socket controller, that swing along the sidewalk of metrics action, that bend at the, flex at the, sit right down and write it creation that lets it all roll along to conclusion or to an opening at the end. 3. Imagine no hip. No swishing skirts or petticoats, no rhumba or cha-cha-cha to inspire the words of love that pour onto the page, that plunge the poet into despair over loss of. Love pivots on such bones. Love poems pivot on them too. 4. Shoot from the [hip]. Be [hip]. [Hip] [Hip] hooray on the page or off into the air above the page. [Hip]ster, gangster, lover, mime, or magician. 5. [Hip] is your tour de force. 6. This is your hippy-dippy weather man, with the weather, Man 7. Whether or not. 8. Lines of poems hang from hip to hip, like bedsheets with secrets from old lovers. 9. Say lip [service or stick]. 10. Trip [up] or [the light fantastic]. 11. Ship [shape] or [out] and flip the switch to poems without secrets. 12. Secrets die like flies in winter when you turn on the lights. 13. It’s a body thing, a guts and sinew and bone thing. 14. Write it all, let it all, from the hip … swing.

Break Out… out there from here

Just as my last book, Native Moon, Native Days, was a departure from the regional, nature-oriented poems of the previous two collections, my newly-submitted manuscript is a departure. It is structure-oriented rather than topical, regional, or overtly ethnic. It contains an array of what seems to me to be like stardust, a sprinkle of light. Of course, the trick here is whether or not a publisher wants to spread my stardust. Regardless, I am happy to have assembled these particular poems in this way. Hands, These Clumsy Ears of Hands. Out there. Definitely out there.

About the guest blogger:

Carol W. Bachofner, MFA Poetry Vermont College of Fine Arts, is currently Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine (2012-2016). She founded (2010) and directs the annual Poetry Month Rockand, a city-wide celebration of poetry. An indigenous woman (Abenaki), she writes with a strong sense of place through narrative poetry. Her poems have appeared in such notable journals as Prairie Schooner, CT Review, Main Street Rag, Bangor Metro, The Comstock Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Cream City Review, Naugatuck River Review, and others. Bachofner teaches poetry in her community and “on the road” via workshops and conferences. She has four published books of poetry: Daughter of the Ardennes Forest, 2007; Breakfast at the Brass Compass, 2010; I Write in the Greenhouse, 2011, and Native Moons, Native Days, 2012. In 2011, Bachofner was a runner-up in the Maine Literary Awards, one of three finalists in the short works/poetry category. Visit her web site for links to her blog, and her facebook page or to contact her for workshops. or contact her by email at

Carol Bachofner headshot



Filed under Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Publishing, Writing, Writing goals

My Mother-in-Law’s Legacy, Part II

Last week I wrote here about my mother-in-law’s painting in New York City in the 40s and 50s. If you haven’t read it, check it out to see samples of the murals of jazz celebrities Diana Dale painted for the Birdland club.

When my husband was in elementary school, his family moved from New York to Michigan.

Here is my MIL standing beside some of her art at the Art Fair at Bronson Park in Kalamazoo.

In Michigan, the subject of her paintings gradually changed. While she still occasionally painted portraits, she began to paint the architecture she found in and around Kalamazoo, Michigan. She also added the surname Castle to her professional name.


The above painting of the A.M. Todd factory was painted just before it was torn down.

In the first year I dated my husband, Diana sat in her “burnt orange” Opel, painting the bank building downtown and the old Monarch paper mill. She was hired to paint local restaurants, restaurant chain stores, and the downtown mall.

Here’s a little aside.  It has to do with my MIL, but it takes a moment to get to that part.  While hubby and I were living in our first house, but before we had kids, I was told I needed to get my impacted wisdom teeth removed. Since I thought the recommended oral surgeon was high on something when I went for a consult, I chose a different one.

Impaction means you need to be “put out” and have the teeth dug out. During the middle of the surgery, suddenly I became conscious and, without yet realizing what was going on, I opened my eyes. You should have seen the look on the doctor’s and assistant’s faces! They were horrified. After quick instructions from the doctor, the assistant ran out to get more medication. Soon I was blissfully out of it again.

But that was just the beginning of a terrible experience. Within a day my face swelled up like a very large jack o’lantern. The swelling didn’t go down for a month. I was on Demerol and began having hallucinations. I woke up  in terror, thinking I was being choked to death by all the long bead and chain necklaces hanging on a rack on my dresser. My two sweet dogs wouldn’t go near me; they were terrified. I soon discovered that men wouldn’t look at me. My neighbor, hubby’s friend, every man whose path I crossed: they glanced at me, looked away with a horrified expression, and then refused to look at me again.

The worst part was that I couldn’t eat at all–for weeks. My face was too swollen. So my great MIL came to my house every day. She stayed with me while hubby was at work, helping me with anything she could Best of all, she made homemade soups and then ran them through the blender so that I could swallow them.

She also doted on my dogs and for many years, she babysat them for a couple of hours a day while hubby and I were at work.  Needless to say, when we adopted our son, she was his first babysitter!


Filed under Art and Music, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Photographs, Research and prep for writing

Break Out, Go Ahead and Do It: Part I

I asked the Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine, Carol Bachofner, to write about a poetic subject important to her. In this piece (which I am posting in two parts–today and then next Thursday), she explores her journey re-creating herself as the sort of poet she envisioned. Maybe all artists have to search to redefine their artistic identities to remain creative.  See what you think.

by Guest Blogger Carol Bachofner

In the early 2000s, I faced myself coming and going in a kind of convergence between form and something “not form.” I needed expansion. I was fortunate at that time to have poetry mentors who sit cleanly in the “new expansionist” camp: David Mason, RS Gwynn, Dana Gioia, and BH Fairchild to be specific. I would describe myself as a new expansionist and count these poets as friends and mentors still. Having said that, I do see myself and my writing now as breaking ground — if only with a tiny hammer. I have not lost sight of my familial roots either, which have led back to ancestor William Dunbar (Scots poet of the 1600s). Despite the age and depths of my roots as a poet, I find myself searching for small breaths of innovation to keep myself and my poems moving forward. I see my contemporaries doing the same, thus debunking the criticism that new expansionists just want to make it old. I wanted to be “that poet,” one who would write the most memorable of poetry, find something new and exciting for my writing life. But instead I settled into a rather ordinary poetic life, satisfying and full, but pretty ordinary.

A breakthrough came for me in 2001while I was living in London. I spent time several days a week in the British Poetry Library located on the 5th floor of the Royal Festival Hall. One day, I came upon a children’s book that changed my writing. It was not a book of great acclaim or literary merit, but it had some language that, for me, was haunting. The story, about a hare in winter, was written by a Scots writer whose tale was poetically told, in a kind of verse that seemed to be prose and poetry combined. I decided to write a poem using some of the author’s rich language approach. I made my first pass at the poem, based upon translation and a parallel presentation, putting together a Scots language version with my translation side by side on the page. Although I did not (still do not) speak the language, I set about doing a translation, one phrase at a time. I still look at that parallel structure from time to time to please myself as a “translator.” As the messages of the story began to unfold in translation, so did the poem itself. I share it here in its final version, minus the original Scottish:

Peace, Tamh

What does one do but look
in a poem to what goes on out there …
Roland Jooris (Flemish poet)

White, cold white
stinging every bare unsheltering hill
Earth you dressed yourself up to be bare
watching snowfall, pleating snow
under doors, over meadows, over moors

The gusts of our longings dizzied us.
We warmed each other,
but the day did not endure

Silence, silence
O’ to be in the circle ‘round the hearth!

The skies are bruised in their seasons
Threads of breath from snowdrifts
travel for miles through the silence
shining white secret, it’s tinkling murmur,
well, that won’t be silent

White waves of stars at time of darkest moon,
a flag of truce for all tribes of the universe.
We are waking.

Then I Chose the Sonnet

Over time, the sonnet form has been adapted into something other than the form we were taught in school, something we can to choose to remake or reinterpret for a contemporary setting. We can open it up and break it into parts, shapes, and employ any manner of contemporary poetic gestures in so doing. Gerald Stern somewhat famously rendered the sonnet “American” by expanding it to more than 14 lines and abandoning obvious rhyme and meter. That got my attention, for its very boldness if nothing else. I found myself more and more attracted to the sonnet. To be honest, I had avoided the kind of regulation the sonnet took beyond what I needed to learn the mechanics of the form, the academic nuts and bolts. But here I was now, drawn to it like a moth to a streetlamp. I spent time, years, reading as many sonnets as I could reasonably do, from Shakespeare to Millay. I began to write sonnets. I wrote traditional ones (mostly terrible ones) and a few break-out ones. I was ready to accept another breakthrough moment.

What can form and an open attitude do to get you out of a rut in your poetry writing? It can redefine your aesthetic, give your writing system a jolt of energy. For me, it keeps me from writing the “same” poem even when focusing upon a particular topic over time. I recently sent off a manuscript that is rife with fractured forms and the whole seems to me to be a most pleasing concoction of what I am capable of doing with words. If I can please myself, I have at least a decent chance of pleasing my readers. Oh, certainly I do want to please you!

I have dared to bend, break, and reassemble form. Let’s look at this a bit in detail. I chose the sonnet, a form I’d rejected for the first half of my writing life. I thought the form stuffy. I hated the way all the sonnets I was reading felt artificial. I admit that my resistance comes a bit from “old stuff” in early college days when New Criticism was fading and free versifying was breaking down those walls. There is no doubt in my mind that I have pretty much always been teetering on the edge of a kind of cosmic divergence between constrained form and free form. If only…

Carol's office

Carol’s office

My very first experience with breaking open and “reassembling” a form occurred not long after this experience with translation. The resultant poem has somewhat traditional rhyme, a turn at line 9 (breakout from rhyme scheme included), and a rhyming couplet that is not exactly a couplet but rather part of a rhyme scheme that morphs into a couplet (fgfgg). Before sharing the broken open form, here is how the poem I wanted to write would look in traditional style (as a block of writing). Take a few minutes and look at all the tradition in this sonnet. There is meter, rhyme that is not entirely predictable, and the look of it screams SONNET! Ordinarily, I’d be proud to have this be my final draft. I’d be told it was a “good” sonnet.

But, for some reason it is not all that satisfying to me. It needed my further attention. You be the judge here. I trust you to see what I saw in the light of innovation and adventure.

Snow, a sonnet

From gardens of the fertile sky, a
fall blossoms made of air b
It’s God’s design that we might sigh a
as we see them sifting here. b
Each flower cut, is folded, sent c
flying stringless, pure, white kites d
to soften up the firmament c
with their muted spiraled light. d
Even the saints will try to shake e
the rumors they’ve been told f
of death that overtook a child g
who wandered in the dazzling cold f
blinded, lost and then beguiled g
by winter’s flowery, frozen smile. g

I think you can see how constrained the subject is due to the structure. It did not feel the way I felt doing the translation. Not at all. It was (is) tight, bordered, and rigid, with the possible exception being the rhyme break at line 9. More on that later when you have looked at the fractured version. The structure needed, wanted to be less rigid. Grief is not rigid. Snow is not rigid. I needed to do something so the poem could say its message. I needed to fracture and reset the bones of the poem.

Let’s look at what opening this poem up on the page did for it:


From hidden gardens of the fertile sky.
fall showy ice-spun blossoms made of air.
It’s God’s design
that we on earth might sigh
as we watch them sifting silently here.
Each pristine flower cut, is folded, sent
flying stringless, pure.
Latticed crystal kites
drift soft across the star-blank firmament.
From deep within the muted spiraled light,
saints and angels try to shake the news,
the frightful rumors they’ve been told:
of death
that overtook a child of two
who wandered out
into the dazzling cold,

blinded, lost, and then beguiled
by winter’s flowery, frozen smile.

If you look closely at the broken version of the poem, you will find the structure of the sonnet there (the “couplet” is there in its own way). It (the message) drifts down and settles, as snow does. It doesn’t overwhelm the message, but instead allows the message to settle on the reader as well.

Can you find the places where the rhyme lives? What about the turn? Does the turn happen somewhere different from the traditionally-structured version? What do you see as successful or not in this second version? Which pleases you and your particular aesthetic about sonnets? Does the breaking of form unsettle you? Is the second a sonnet at all? Only you can decide. But it pleases me to present it to you here.

Come back next Thursday for the rest of Carol’s essay.

Do you think that all artists have to search to redefine their artistic identities to remain creative?

About the guest blogger:

Carol W. Bachofner, MFA Poetry Vermont College of Fine Arts, is currently Poet Laureate of Rockland, Maine (2012-2016). She founded (2010) and directs the annual Poetry Month Rockand, a city-wide celebration of poetry. An indigenous woman (Abenaki), she writes with a strong sense of place through narrative poetry. Her poems have appeared in such notable journals as Prairie Schooner, CT Review, Main Street Rag, Bangor Metro, The Comstock Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Cream City Review, Naugatuck River Review, and others. Bachofner teaches poetry in her community and “on the road” via workshops and conferences. She has four published books of poetry: Daughter of the Ardennes Forest, 2007; Breakfast at the Brass Compass, 2010; I Write in the Greenhouse, 2011, and Native Moons, Native Days, 2012. In 2011, Bachofner was a runner-up in the Maine Literary Awards, one of three finalists in the short works/poetry category. Visit her web site for links to her blog, and her facebook page or to contact her for workshops. or contact her by email at

Carol Bachofner headshot


Filed under Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Publishing, Writing, Writing goals

My Mother-in-Law’s Legacy, Part I

I frequently find myself missing my mother-in-law. She passed away on my daughter’s 16th birthday, ten years ago.

She was a great MIL–a warm and slightly eccentric and very talkative woman–who didn’t care if my house was clean ;). She went out of her way to be kind to others, especially children and animals.  As a bonus, she was a talented painter.

Although my MIL grew up in Canada, when she was very young, she left for New York City to study at the Art Students League of New York, where she adopted the professional name Diana Dale.

Diana Dale 1947 roof of Art Students League of New York

While living in New York, her favorite subjects were of musical people (Broadway stars and jazz greats) and the people of her neighborhood, such as the Chinese man who ran the laundry she frequented. She hung out in Broadway theatres, painting actors like Katharine Cornell, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and Ezio Pinza. This image is the best I could manage because the glare from the glass was terrible. It’s Patricia Morison, the star of the original Broadway cast of Kiss Me, Kate.

Patricia Morison Kiss Me Kate original Broadway cast

Patricia Morison Kiss Me Kate original Broadway cast

She also painted celebrities like Duke Ellington on the murals that graced the walls of the Birdland nightclub.

Duke Ellington from "The Birdland Story" Mural by Diana Dale

Duke Ellington from “The Birdland Story”
Mural by Diana Dale

I recently found a line written about her by the uber-famous Walter Winchell: “The Birdland walls are from the easel of Diana Dale, a part- time hatchick there.”Hatchick?! Well, I did know that she was a hatcheck girl and a cigarette girl in the Harlem clubs. Her murals created much of the visual ambiance of the Birdland. 

Billie Holiday from "The Birdland Story" Mural by Diana Dale

Billie Holiday from “The Birdland Story”
Mural by Diana Dale

Here is a photograph I found online of members of Stan Kenton’s band and Count Basie‘s Orchestra. I hope it’s ok to use this photo; I’ve linked to the site it comes from. It was signed to Gabe Baltazar (4th from left).



Notice that the Diana Dale painting on our left behind the men is one of Count Basie. The painting in the center is Dinah Washington. I’m not sure about the right; any ideas? Since the date associated with this photo is 1962, the murals must have stayed with the club until it was closed in 1965 (it has reopened since then).

For awhile, the paintings were in a temporary display at the Smithsonian. In the book The Birdland Story the Birdland murals are described this way:

These murals that you have viewed on the preceeding [sic] pages hang on the walls of the Birdland as a permanent exhibit. We have printed them in this book in answer to the many requests of Birdland patrons who have asked for copies. They are recognized as the finest collection of contemporary drawings of jazz personalities extant.

Jazz and art critics have hailed these works as the finest, therefore, it is with great pride that we have the exclusive privilege of presenting these wonderful copies in “The Birdland Story” to you, the coolest people in this gone world, our patrons and our fans.

All these drawings were conceived, designed and executed by Diana Dale.

Note: “gone” here is jazz slang and means fabulous.

I knew my MIL for thirty years. She painted until almost the end. But she never neglected her family, choosing to lavish them with her time. In a newspaper article about my MIL when my husband and his sister were about 7 and 3, she was asked: “When does a housewife and mother of two lively youngsters find time for painting?”

Miss Dale said that she does most of her painting late at night. She often gets very little sleep, she said, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. As she says, “Nothing worthwhile comes without hard work.”

More to come on my MIL and her work.


Filed under Art and Music, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Photographs, Research and prep for writing