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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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!

A Finish Line: An Update

I used to sit in my office years ago and flip through MFA program packets and dream about having enough money to attend one someday. Then, dutiful first-born that I am, I enrolled in an MA program because it was more “practical.” (This was true in some ways but not in all ways.) Through a series of circumstances, the MA program at Creighton turned out to be my way into an MFA program. And I was offered a fellowship that paid my tuition and enough stipend money to pay the rent.

My MFA fellowship didn’t only gave me time to write. Because I didn’t have to keep a part-time job on the side, I was able to volunteer in the kids’ classrooms, drop them off and pick them up everyday, bring them forgotten gym clothes and permissions slips. It’s been wonderful for us as a family. We made a big transition from split-level suburbia to two-bedroom town home in the heart of Omaha. The kids started attending large public schools. All of it has proved to be a beautiful adventure and rousing success. The timing for an MFA fellowship was perfect.

Now I’m finished! (Jesse took this photo.) I’ve got that terminal degree (meaning I have the correct papers to be a full professor someday, if the literary and professional stars fall into alignment) and without any extra student loan debt.

We celebrated all weekend and put a beautiful seal around the season of study. My biggest lesson from three years of grad school in literature and creative writing? My writing isn’t good enough, but I have plenty of ideas for how it can be better. The goal is beautiful. That’s what I’m working toward.

For the summer I’m scheduled to tutor GED students for about 20 hours a week, leaving some time for pools, flowers, walks, etc. with the kids. Also leaving time for more writing, revising, and submitting.

I had some good great news last week when an editor at a literary mag accepted one of my poems and asked to see four others after I revise them another time. That was a huge boost to my confidence! I’ve only been submitting for a little while, but when the red “declined” response is piling up, it’s nice to see a little green “accepted” in the queue. (That’s Submittable talk.) I’ll share more details when the particulars are in order.

So the plan is to keep up with my online teaching, part-time tutoring, and writing/revising/submitting for publication. (AND the children; I plan to keep up with the parenting of the children.) Of course, generous soul that I am, I am always open to Dickens-style benefactors. Applications welcome and there is no submission fee!

 

What I’m Always Looking For

New city this week! I was lucky enough to travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota for the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference. And when I visit a new city I’m always looking for a couple of things:

1.) the beautiful churches in the downtown area (always made of stone so worn it almost looks soft and always tucked in among the taller, more angular buildings of commerce, education, and infrastructure). I’m always interested in finding these beautiful edifices. I love how they seem to have sprouted up along with the other important buildings but have remained useful and beautiful despite the years. I love how they look different from those other buildings (always distinctive and unique) and yet still seem to fit in naturally with the metro landscape.

2.) the people doing art in the creative centers. Our group toured the amazing Loft Literary Center and our minds were blown. We walked through the offices of small publishers and the shared space of teachers and students of the Center. We even helped make paper and watched a letter-press in action. When we first entered the open house, we were greeted by an enthusiastic woman with silver hair who said, “We’re just so proud of our building – I hope you’ll enjoy looking around” with as much genuine passion as she must have said it to the other hundreds of people who has arrived before us.

While these two types of landmarks – churches and art centers – are separate and different from one another, they appeal to me in similar ways. It’s just knowing that places like this exist that gives me hope. That such places are in the world, doing their good work, standing in their places as advocates for art or faith or whatever work it is that brings them life.

I’m inspired by these centers to do similar work in my own city and life. And what I know is that the working and the standing are hard some days. Imagine the literary center that on Thursday night was as packed as a night club, rooms overflowing with people, booze, and appetizers. But I bet today it’s pretty quiet, and somebody is probably having to mop those striking wood floors, empty the non-glamorous trash cans.

Likewise, for that beautiful church to stay standing, someone has to monitor the health of its foundation, the wear in its carpets, the caulk in its windows. Not fun work but necessary.

So I’ve come home from a writing conference full of ideas and new faces, stocked with new books to read and submission guidelines to journals that might like my work. I’m inspired but know the only thing to do now is to get to work.

The Alure of an Uncrossed Intersection

Wednesday is workshop night. Each week of summer break our little tribe of MFA students gathers at the Panera Bread on Saddle Creek Road. We order cups of soup and tall smoothies and then get started on the task at hand: responding to the poems or stories up for workshop that week.

I’ve been extremely thankful for our group this summer because it’s kept me in the habit of writing. I’m a deadline writer by nature, but knowing I have a workshop coming up has also trained me to write quick drafts wherever I am. Last week I dashed one off while the reading students I tutor were busy with a group project. Surprisingly, the poem was inspired by something I see while I’m in workshop on Wednesday nights.

While I’m sitting in the too-cold air conditioning, I often look out the big widows toward an intersection that connects the Panera parking lot with Saddle Creek and a cross street I don’t have a name for. It’s a tidy intersection: our small plaza on one side, a Walgreens (the kind with lots of green space and boxy shrubs) on one corner and a mid-sized apartment complex (the kind with white wrought iron balconies) on the other corner. To get onto Saddle Creek you’d take a left or a right. If you drive straight through the light you disappear as the street goes up a slight hill and the large over-hanging trees obscure any further view. And every week I think, “I wonder what kind of street is just over that hill. It must be beautiful.”

But every week after the workshop has concluded, I don’t detour to find out. Because I kind of like the not knowing. I like imagining what could be and I hate being disappointed by an alternate reality. I’d rather keep it a secret from myself and just live in the pleasure of not knowing instead of being disappointed by dilapidated rentals or empty store fronts. If that’s the view I’ll find, I’d rather not find out.

On the weeks we workshop my poetry I leave the parking lot with at stack of edited and commented upon poems. I set them in my backseat like the child of mine that they are and I take them home, load them into the appropriate file folder, and tell them I’ll be back to finish them up later.

Except I don’t want to finish them. I like them as they are: full of raw potential and encouraging comments. In this state, even the critical remarks don’t sting because they are followed (by my generous friends) with “a quick fix” or “just something to consider in revision.” Different than the comments I see on the published work of others online. Those comments are directed at the finished work, the work that has no further hope of renovation. Those poems are finished. But my poems full of green marker edits and ball point commentaries are pure possibility in their unfinished state. They might turn out to be perfect.

I like them that way. And I’ve yet to take that unnamed street just to see what’s on the other side. Because I fear being disappointed. But it’s crazy, right? Because what if on the other side of the intersection is the street of my dreams? A house just the right size and shape for our too-large family? A historical marker that will engage my imagination and prompt another poem?

So, I’m planning to dig into that box. And I’ll take the detour, too. Eventually.

My First Reading

ReadingA few weeks ago I gave my first poetry reading at The Bookworm in Omaha. The New Voices Reading Series is co-sponsored by my university (Creighton) and the University of Nebraska Omaha. I was one of four readers, two in fiction and two in poetry. It was a very positive learning experience. For sure I discovered that as much as I like writing poetry, I probably like reading it even more.

My professor gave me the best advice, and I think it could apply to our lives in general. After giving me a little tutorial on how to arrange my poems and how to practice for the reading she said, “Just be sure to read your own poems in the same way you read someone else’s.” What she meant was that I shouldn’t be embarrassed to read my own poems out loud with passion and energy, the way I read, for example, Elizabeth Bishop’s “An Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore.”

I love nothing more than to throw myself into the out loud reading of a really great poem. But she was right that when I read my own poems in workshop I don’t do it with the same kind of confidence. Making that one switch in my brain is one of the reasons I felt like my first reading was successful. No one wanted to feel me apologizing. They came to hear some poems. So I read them some. And it was really fun.

 

Poems and Acceptance Speeches

This is the way one of my professors describes the power of a poem: It is the re-telling of a meaningful experience to a dear friend. And yet it is meant to be overheard by a crowd. The tension of those two ideas keeps the poem balanced with vulnerability as well as readability.

I see a parallel with award show acceptance speeches. It seems to me that the best speeches have a nice balance of emotion and structure (or heart and head, as I’ve heard it categorized). From last night’s Oscars, three speeches come to mind: Lupita Nyong’o (seen above in a beautiful visual depiction of what I’m attempted to analyze here), the husband-wife team who wrote “Let it Go” from Frozen, and, yes, even Matthew McConaughey. Because what I like is the tension – not the perfect balance – between a prepared and yet heart-felt response.

These are the kind of speeches I don’t like:

1. All emotion and no structure – When the winner cries or laughs to excess or simply can’t get a thoughtful word out. I’m even game for a jump or a fist pump (I see you, director Steve McQueen). But it turns me off when the winner makes no attempt at gathering themselves in order to communicate clearly when they knew there was (usually) a 1 in 5 chance they would be in that position. The poem counterpart is one that gushes on and on in abstract phrases, giving you no solid images or metaphors upon which your understanding can catch a foothold.

2. All structure and no emotion – When the winner pulls out a folded 8×10 sheet of paper and begins to read a list of names. This is what Thank You cards are for. A winner should remember that their conversation is being “overheard” and there is an unspoken agreement with that audience that you will not bore them with unrelated details. The costume designer from Australia sidestepped this pitfall by describing her “list” as a team of seamstresses currently at work on a new project. In doing that she gave me both of the things I wanted: to see her being grateful to the people who deserved it but to share it in an economical and interesting way.

3. All emotion and all structure – When the winner is Cate Blanchett. I’m not sure I can describe this one effectively, but this is when things just seem too much of both. I thought Blanchett was lovely and started off strong but then I got a little lost and felt structured and emoted out. Steve McQueen was an example of this as well. He was highly emotional but reading from a piece of paper as plain as if it had come from my ream at home. At least print it neatly on a notecard, maybe? Obviously, I can’t be satisfied, but you get the idea. These poems are just too much; the emotion and the structure seem to be at war instead of complementing one another.

My favorite kind of poem and acceptance speech is the one that seems effortless but is clearly crafted to be sublime. I don’t want to see the structure but I want to feel that it is there, holding things together and making room for beautiful expressions of emotion and truth.

What do you think? Whose speech did you love?