Why Poetry? (from the Poet Laureate)

This week I’ve been reading A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver (she’s the poet famous for the line, “what is it you  plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”). Here’s one of my favorite sections:

Writing a poem … is a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind. They make appointments with each other, and keep them, and something begins to happen. Or, they make appointments with each other but are casual and often fail to keep them: count on it, nothing happens.

[The heart] learns quickly what sort of courtship it is going to be. Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself–soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.

Just more evidence that being a great writer is less about talent and more about hard work. Which is actually pretty comforting even if it does at the same time threaten my usual list of excuses. Still, I can’t shake the idea that it’s something I can do. Should do.

Then last night I finally got to hear Natasha Trethewey (the US Poet Laureate) read her work. It was enchanting, to say the least. And toward the end of the evening she was asked the question, “Why write poetry instead of one of the other genres?” She laughed because it’s a question she gets often. Her answer is perfect, in my opinion:

Poetry is the best repository for our most humane and just expressions of feeling.

Next week I’m off to STORY Chicago! I imagine I’ll come back full of new drafts, don’t you think?

The Writer’s Life

This is actually an assignment in my MFA program: imagine the life of a writer and begin to live it. My sister is justifiably jealous. “That’s school?! What am I doing in the real world!?” she commented on my Instagram. Yes, the very best kind of school. I have scheduled writing time everyday. Everyday, you guys! It’s awesome. And hard.

The books above are the first I received from my reading list. I’m learning so much from them. (I’ll get to hear a reading from Thrall next week when the Poet Laureate visits my own Joslyn Museum!) For example, read this from Carolyn See in the chapter where she tells writers that part of the struggle will be against the rest of the world who just wants you to keep quiet and be normal in order to keep alive the structure of civilization as we know it:

But the minute somebody begins to write–or to make any kind of real “art”–all that structure comes into question. It’s no coincidence that repressive governments go after their artists and writers first. Daily life is serious business. It’s hard enough to put a civilization together. And one artist is–theoretically, at least–capable of bringing down the whole damn thing.

So if you’re a writer or an artist or anyone who dares to bring creativity into the earth (I know a lot of people who do this everyday at their “normal” job), then you are at risk for being challenged, even threatened by people who just want to keep the status quo. But you can’t do that anymore. Because you know better. And, as Oprah says, now you’ll do better, too.

This is the challenge: do the work. And it’s the challenge for all of us. We all have visions of who we want to be: a better mom, a stronger athlete, a more prosperous business person. But the only things keeping us from our desires are our own desires. I want to have time to write so I cut down on my work hours and set aside quiet time at home. But now I have to create. I have to write. I have to produce. I can’t just sit around surfing the Internet or even reading the millions of great poems already written by others.

Likewise, being a mom who has cookies and milk ready for her kids after school means you have to bake those stupid cookies, buy some milk, and be there after school.You can’t watch TV all day and try to do everything else after the kids come home. It’s too late then. (And please don’t think this is any kind of example from my own life. Oh, my.) None of it happens just because we want it to. If it did, the world would be full of rich, happy, successful people at Pinterest-perfect parties every day.

Nope, it’s just you and me and the people we love, and if we want to make it happen we have to do the work. And then rest in the grace of each other when we don’t. Because we all know how hard it is. And we all know how wonderful it can be. So we keep at it, we artists and creators and everyday people who believe in more than what we see.

It really is the very best kind of school. For all of us.




“August is the Sunday of Summer”

So, here we are in the Sunday of Summer (a phrase I heard on the radio this week), and we’re definitely treating it as a chance to make some seasonal changes around here. A little catch-up on the White House II?

Another move! But this time it’s just up the street and around the corner. We can almost see Grandpa’s house from our new front porch. We’d like to buy our own little corner of Omaha someday and we thought a cheaper rental might get us to that goal a little quicker. All three girls will be piling into one bedroom and the extra music equipment has to be in storage for a while, but we think we can do it.

New school! Well, a new program for me. I start in the very first MFA program at Creighton University on Tuesday. My focus will be in poetry. Since I was fortunate enough to receive a fellowship, my schedule is going to be opened way up (in terms of work – the kids will still need me occasionally). I almost can’t believe it. Of course, the goal of the program is for me to create a publishable, book-length work, so I have a lot of writing to do.

A new job! This one is Dan’s. He is a good, good man, people. You know what’s expensive? Living. Dan is the best musician I know and he was doing everything he could to make the money we needed based on that skill. It just wasn’t happening. So he did the noble thing and suited up with the Geek Squad. I’m so so proud and grateful. There are a lot of good stories attached to his procurement of this job but the bottom line is that he has secured a steady income AND benefits for our family in this season. Kids only need braces once, you know, so it won’t be forever.

I guess sometimes Sunday night is the worst time of the week, but it doesn’t have to be if you’re looking forward to Monday. When you expect Monday to be good, Sunday is great!

So, what’s new with you?


What Does Your Dad Do?

He takes us to the ballpark and buys us cotton candy with the cash from his envelope marked “Business Lunches.”

He tucks us in every night by tickling our necks until we scream. Mom yells at him for getting us too excited before bed and then he has to calm us down. Don’t tell her, but we think he does it on purpose so he can hang out with us longer.

He makes us guacamole and lets us eat as much as we want. It’s his secret recipe and he always knows when the avocados are ready. Not too soft, not too firm.

He watches kid movies with us and laughs as loud as we do.

He programs the drums for our family band so we don’t lose the steady beat.

He goes to work sometimes, but we don’t know what he does there.

We’re just happy when he gets home.



Our Yankee Doodle Dandy

Jesse was born at 9:00 a.m. on the Fourth of July, a true Yankee Doodle, to a small crowd of adoring fans. But the cheering hasn’t seemed to spoil him like you’d expect. Instead, he returns the favor.

Dandy (noun): someone or something of exceptional or first-rate quality. In this photo captured at last night’s College Homerun Derby (televised on ESPN tonight), Jesse is the only fan in sight on his feet cheering for the batter who just hit a ball over the yellow line. A player he didn’t know, from a team he didn’t call his own, in a sport he really doesn’t follow. But he was there, it was happening, and Jesse cheered.

Maybe everyone else had grown tired of cheering – six competitors had been swinging for the fences for several rounds. We’d seen a lot of homeruns by that time. Maybe we’d glutted ourselves on the simulated spectacle of what happens rarely in a real game. Maybe we were busy with our cotton candy or plastic-flavored cheese sauce. Maybe Jesse was the only one who recognized that hitting a tiny white ball over 400 feet with only a small aluminum stick – under any circumstances – is worthy of celebration.

Probably he’s the only one who got it right. And that’s just one reason why he’s a dandy on the fourth of July.