When Ted Kooser Writes a Poem in the Morning …

 

… and reads it to you that evening. 

And it makes you tear up it’s so beautiful and intricate and moving.

What lesson do you take from this extraordinary moment? From knowing that a former Poet Laureate spent hours of his morning capturing the essence of a memory into lines of poetry and then spoke it into the air on a Friday night in Omaha, Nebraska, and you were one of the few in the room to hear it?

Start by being hard on yourself: Why didn’t you write this morning? If you had a regular writing habit, you might be able to write about a conch shell in a way that makes people catch their breath when you finish. You need more discipline.

Then tell yourself this is about longevity. Sure, your poems aren’t spinning out of your head and onto your computer screen like that, but maybe if you keep at it for the next 30 or so years you’ll get there. Don’t give up.

Then listen carefully when Mr. Kooser responds to the audience question, “What is poetry to you?” Listen to the charming man in the bright orange tie, perhaps an homage to the perfection of October. Listen as he pauses before he answers, gathering up the thousands of words he’s spoken on this subject and sifting through them for the ones he wants tonight. Listen to his response.

“Poetry is the record of a discovery … in life … or in memory …”

When he says it, first you’ll turn to your husband who is already offering you a pen so you can capture the line exactly. Then it will settle into your soul that this is the work you’ve been doing and the work that will continue to bring you life. This is work that does not feel like work. This is your great pleasure. This is open eyes and heart and mind.

The discoveries are the gifts; the poems, if you make them, are the record. 

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with Macy at Vala’s Pumpkin Patch

Vala’s Pumpkin Patch is an Omaha tradition in September and October. Dan’s fab bosses always take a big group of us later, but when Macy’s Girl Scout troop announced $10 tickets, we just said yes. I’m trying to do that more often to these rare one-on-one opportunities with my kids. Jesse is a sophomore this year and I can see my seconds with them funneling into the narrow part of that proverbial hour glass and disappearing into a heap of time below me. Yes, let’s go to Vala’s, just the two of us.

We met up with her friend Naomi, ate S’mores (created by roasting marshmallows and then placing them between two Thanks-A-Lot cookies – that’s Girl Scout smart!), wound through haunted houses and corn mazes, rode the train, took in all the beautifully tacky sights, tasted the fair-style food, and stayed way longer than we had planned. I thought I was a Vala’s purist and wouldn’t find the experience in 80 degrees as charming as it is in hoodie weather – and it certainly wasn’t as charming – but it was great in its own way. Crowds were light, the attractions meant to be scary weren’t as frightening in the afternoon, and lemonade in a souvenir cup never tasted so good.

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I guess attempting to blog about our fun day reminded me that I had wanted to do something special and important and smart with a new blog post (It’s been sooo long!) but all I really have are some phone photos of this life I’m trying to live well. Still, here I am writing and here you are reading and that’s really the essence of the blog thing anyway, right? Present over perfect in life and in blogging, and that’s good enough for today.

“things that fill you up”

Some days I feel restless. I click through emails, submission calls, Zillow photos, job posts, etc., subconsciously thinking the answer to any of my discomforts in life might be just on the other side of that click. It never is.

When this sad, restless feeling is at it’s worst, I can’t even write. Or if I try to write, the words come out as vague and pale as my emotions.

In those moments, if I can pull myself together a little, I remember this great advice from a favorite professor, “Feast on things that fill you up.” Her examples: movies, books, a walk in a garden, a trip to the zoo, a glass of wine, a conversation with a fellow writer, an interaction with a child. Consider all these “fillers” as important to your writing as the writing itself.

In that spirit, I give you some recent examples:

  1. The Hamilton Soundtrack – I had no idea this rap-driven history lesson in musical theater form would be so moving to me, but I love it. We all do, actually. The whole family passes through the house singing, “I am NOT throwin’ away my SHOT!” and other great songs. Did you see this video from the cast’s Grammy performance?
  2. Brooklyn – This simple, quite movie was everything I wanted it to be. Beautiful, a moving but not overly complicated story.
  3. Jaber Crow – I’m just getting into this one. It’s known as Wendell Berry’s best novel. So far, it’s delicious.
  4. Felicity – Mary Oliver’s latest book of poems. I tend to take essay topics and try to turn them into poems. Oliver’s poems remind me a passing glance is sometimes enough for a good poem.
  5. Jimmy Fallon laughing – I could watch this all day long. No one is a better fan than Jimmy Fallon and I think if we all tried being better at this – at genuinely enjoying others – then we’d be better at life.

And besides those are a few more less-produced things that fill me up:

the way it’s still dark when I meet my friend for early morning exercise,

the way my children talk when they know no one is listening but me,

the way my ankles look in my new pair of moccasin-style shoes.

So many things in this life to fill me up –

few of them on the other side a touch pad click.

 

Let the Poem

TTR2.1COVERBLACK-232x300I published a poem this month! It’s the first one that formally drops me into the professional category because they paid me. You can read it for free online here by clicking on the cover image. The journal also has a Mini Contest for each issue – you can vote for your favorite in each category.

For most of my usual blog readers, a literary journal is probably a bit of a foreign artifact. The first time I published in an ungrad journal I didn’t even show my mother a copy because the cover was a horrifying piece of Chucky-style doll art. And even my poem in this particular journal is very different from the kind of things I write about here – basically my kids these days. But there is a method to this seemingly bi-polar writing style and basically it has to do with being better at all of it.

What we love about good actors is that they can portray dissimilar characters with ease. My daughter Ada has been mourning the loss of Professor Snape while I grieve for Colonel Brandon. I’d like my work as a writer to have a similar scope – which means I hope to be read by more than one kind of reader. A poetry mentor of mine believed the healthiest writers could write in more than one genre.

In case you are hoping I’ll tell you what “At the Nadia Bolz-Weber Lecture” is about, prepare to be disapponted. I won’t tell you because that would be like telling you reading one person’s movie review was as good as watching the movie yourself. A poem is a very different thing from an essay or a work of fiction. It’s probably as far from a blog post as two pieces of writing could be.

A poem is a carefully crafted piece of fiction, even if it is based on a real-life experience. This is the single piece of writing pedagogy that opened me up to the possibility of becoming a poet. In the process of writing, the poem becomes a new thing. Even if it started from something that actually happened, once it is on the page the poem is then crafted into whatever it wants to be as a piece of art. Every word, syllable, and line is re-arranged, edited, re-created.

In the case of “At the Nadia Bolz-Weber Lecture,” the speaker of the poem wasn’t even me anymore. As a writer, I had been constrained by telling the truth as I knew it and that limited me from exploring the many ways a moment could be experienced by myself or by others. This poem is how I imagined a person could have experienced that lecture, those words.

When you read a poem, keep those things in mind:

Remember the poet is not necessarily the speaker.

Remember the poem is always about more than what happened. The poem is how the poet tells you it happened, every word, space, and line break. The poem is the experience of reading the poem, hearing each word break through your conscious and unconscious mind.

This is, not incidentally, what I think makes some people love poetry and others hate it. You don’t get to “torture a confession out of” a poem (as Billy Collins brilliantly remarks). You only get to read it, hear it, feel it.

Don’t misunderstand me, I love to tease meaning out of a poem! And I’d love for you do to that with mine. I love a poem that captures my imagination with language, rhythm, or sound but isn’t clear immediately to my mind. I love re-reading it, studying each line and word choice, and eventually making connections that add up to a sense of meaning. You can read my personal anthology of favorites here.

You just shouldn’t try to make a poem something that it isn’t: an essay, for example, or a blog post. Let the poem be a poem. Who knows what all goes into one person preferring Professor Snape to Colonel Brandon … but they are both brilliant, aren’t they? Suited to different tastes and purposes perhaps, but created by the same person (with obvious direction and inspiration from outside sources, which is another discussion entirely).

Happy reading – whatever you choose!

She Looks Just Right

When I take a photo like this, I know Dan is going to lean over my shoulder as I’m posting it to Instagram and say something like, “She looks way too old in this pic.” And I’m probably going to smile and say, “I know.”

I see it on your Facebook photos, too. If our kids aren’t looking too old, they’re growing to fast. “SOMEONE STOP TIME!” you type under the adorable photos of your infant with one of those clever __ months old stickers on her chest. (I got married AND had children pre-Pinterest. What a waste.)

But you know what I’ve been thinking lately? Nope, it’s all just right. This age at this speed. It’s all just right. It’s good to appreciate the brevity of life. I think that’s a smart way to live. But I wonder sometimes if we subconsciously amp ourselves up like the mice I read about once in a book. Researchers put a group of regular, healthy mice into a cage with a group of mice who were totally hopped up on amphetamines. Within minutes the normal, healthy mice were spinning and jumping and gagging just like the methed-out mice. I start feeling a bit like that when I scroll through photo after photo in my social media feeds with these kinds of comments about everything happening too fast. I start believing it is all happening too fast.

I have to remind myself that nothing actually happens sooner than it happens. And there must be a rhythm to this system of growing and changing that makes sense for our species, for our hearts. As the beautiful song from the movie About Time says, “there’s gold in them hills.” The hills of two year-olds and tweens, infants and young adults.

In the hills of third grade and eight years old, I’m going to remind myself she doesn’t look too old, she looks just right.

At the End of the World

In a movie I watched recently, two strangers face the literal end of the world together. It was quite beautiful, really. And it got me thinking about what I would do if in the news today we were informed that an asteroid was on-pace to impact the earth with certain annihilation in the next 24 hours. What would I want to do?

I knew right away I wouldn’t want to be at my computer writing, which surprised me in some ways since writing is sort of one of my things. I also knew I wouldn’t care about searching for a great job anymore. I wouldn’t care about solving the many social issues that weigh heavy on my conscience almost constantly, because I’d know there wouldn’t really be much I could do in that amount of time. My goals would be much smaller, much simpler.

What would I want to do with the last 24 hours of our collective lives here on earth? I made a quick list of 5 things.

1. I’d want to walk my kids to school through my neighborhood. I mark my days by this walk. Or walk them home — in September when the air is still warm but the nights are cool enough to trick the trees into changing costumes from green to ruddy oranges, golden, and crimson. The sun would slant through the branches and between the two-story houses. The breeze would clear the uneven sidewalks of slowly dropping leaves. The girls’ voices would fall and rise, interrupting each other in the excitement over their days – tales of playground triumphs, classroom pedagogy, and lunchtime disappointments.

2. I’d want to sit at a football game. High school. Also in September, or maybe October when a mid-weight jacket is still enough but claps are muted by gloves. The band would play and the teams would battle. We’d eat stadium food and catch up with our neighbors. We’d laugh and cheer and groan. The photo above is from a baseball game – it doesn’t quite take me to the same happy place but close.

3. I’d want to be on a road trip with my husband. The sun would be shining in our windows and he’d be playing his latest musical find. We’d be talking about the future – or, considering the asteroid, maybe we’d be talking about our shared past. We’d be holding hands and maybe snacking. We’d have a long way to go but it would feel like we were almost there.

4. I’d want to nap with a newborn on my chest. Almost anywhere, but a padded porch swing might be perfect.

5. I’d want to visit the ocean. Or a sea. Not on a crowded sandy beach but on an island in Sweden where smooth boulders meet the salt water and an ancient fortress overlooks a storybook village. I’d want to fika there with every person I have ever liked or loved.

What do I notice about this list, the list that jumped first into my mind? It’s really not so much a wish list of things I’d like to do but a celebration of things I’ve already done. Things I know I love. Not a list of longing for unfulfilled desires (although I have some of those) but a list of beautiful moments I’d like to savor again. I wonder what this says about me?

But I think I’m glad.

How about you? What would be on your quick list? (Try to think of this as a rhetorical exercise and not a literal apocalyptic scenario. Otherwise things are going to get a little too intense.)

 

Trust the Process

When we’re parenting it’s easy to get stuck in a moment, to think this or that characteristic about our child may never change. Our picky eater will die of adult-onset malnutrition. Our hot-tempered toddler will have no friends. Our hygiene resistant tween will never find love.

But here’s the good news we often forget: Most of us were picky-eating, hot-tempered, hygiene-resistant kids. We played games, flirted with too many boys, and wasted hours at the pool. But look at us now! Grown-ups with jobs! We’re feeding our children, putting money in the bank. We actually make good choices 80% of the time (give or take a few misguided relational connections and various fad diets).

I’m learning to trust the process of growing up that got us from there to here and not freak out while we’re in the still-forming middle of it all.