Saturday, August 8, 2015

Closing the door for now

I have been posting lately on FaceBook, being selective who I friend and find that I reach more people with my poetry there than I've done here. So, for now, I'm closing the door here. If any of you want to read my work, please ask to friend me on FB.

I'll leave the blog here, but just not add to it, at least for a while.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Help I'm Stuck: How can science help?

Once in a while, I see an article in the NYT science section or in a NASA Science Newsletter that completely amazes me. And the science may be in micro form or macro, from things seen only through an electron microscope to things seen only with radio telescopes and computers or the Hubble Telescope. 


Pictures like this one of horses in the caves at Lascaux and Altamira were studied by scientists who were curious about their coloring, of all things. They discovered from studying genetic material gathered from uncovered remains of horses living at the time of the cave paintings, that they share color genes with today's horses. Those genes account for the coloring of the horses in the paintings. I found this amazing, but was prompted to speculate further about those genes and what they could tell us about life and what they probably can't. That produced a poem about an appaloosa colt, the product of my memory of seeing colts frolicking in pastures and meadows in Colorado.

Spotted Horses

Scientists studying DNA to discover the colors of horses 
painted on cave walls 25 to 30 thousand years ago found 
that " ... there were really only these three color patterns 
— spotted or dappled; blackish ones; and brown ones ...."

The leggy Appaloosa colt first walks
then trots a lazy path around his dam.
He gallops off through tawny prairie grass
and finally finishes his head-long charge
to nuzzle lovingly his mother’s face.
They're two white horses kissed with leopard spots
who seem like mirror images or else
that they have floated off the walls of caves
in France to drop into this sun blessed field.

The scientists who study DNA
have found those leopard spots have been around
for thirty thousand years; they've found a gene
that inks those spots. Do you suppose they'll find
that pony's genes for spirit, grace, and joy?

Published in Golden Words, 2012.

That's the micro end of the spectrum. At the macro end, I saw an article in the NASA Science News that featured a discovery made using the Hubble Telescope. The article said that scientists wondered what might be in a tiny black space that apparently held no stars at the edge of the universe. The article said the hole was about the size of a grain of sand held out at arms length. Their discovery was mind blowing to me, and I thought about it for a while and wrote this poem. I included details from the article.

To See A World In A Grain Of Sand

A small dark hole at the edge of space
no bigger than a grain of sand held out
at arms length. Curious scientists point
the Hubble telescope and let it watch
that dark for ten days, then for eleven.
It searches thirteen billion light years out
and finds that the darkness, that grain
of sand, holds three thousand galaxies,
each with hundreds of billions of stars
like our Milky Way. The human mind
cannot begin to grasp the magnitude 
of that discovery. How then to grasp
the wonder of the God who flung 
those galaxies and stars for us to find?

Published in The Weekly Avocet, January 2014

So now, when I'm stuck, I often look to articles about science to help get me unstuck. Some of these discoveries are so philosophically challenging or completely mind blowing that they take me for a ride back in time to Lascaux or the creation of the universe and cause wonder and joy. The neat piece for me is that the human mind can use these scientific discoveries as jumping off points to reach out further into the philosophic and poetic universes to create more magic.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Help, I'm stuck: And what's a list poem?

That's the question I asked my poetry partner, Chris Valentine, when she suggested that we each write one and share them. I'd never heard of a list poem. Perhaps you haven't either. It seems simple enough. Stop, look, and listen to something and make a list of what you see or hear. Of course it could be smell, feel, or taste also. Just make a list of things that are in the same place, are opposites, are associated with each other. Could even be names on signs, items in the paper, headlines, whatever. Just gather a list.

The Teacher's & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, which Chris sent to help cure my  ignorance, has this to say about the List Poem.

The list poem (also called the "catalog poem") is a very old form of poetry. It consists of an itemization of things or events. List poems can be of any length, rhymed or unrhymed. The original purpose of this descriptive, repetitive verse was often functional.

In my case its function was to get me unstuck. I seemed to have run through all the ideas I had for poems and figured I was finished as a poet. A one shot wonder whose one shot left some wondering. So I took Chris's challenge—there's a reason I call her "the wise one."

I volunteer at the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora and we have about a thousand acres of prairie with all the usual grasses, wildflowers, prickly pair cactus, cottonwoods, willows in the creek, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, bull snakes, desert cottontails, 13-lined ground squirrels, pronghorn (antelope if you'd like), red-tailed hawks, Swainson's hawks, ferruginous hawks, kestrels, bald eagles, golden eagles, mourning doves, horned larks, great-horned owls, and coyotes. Hey, there's a list I could use. I wrote it down first, so dibs on the list.

I went out to the Center and hiked on one of the main trails, Soddie Road. It heads north past a cattle guard through the short-grass prairie, comes within 15 yards of East Tollgate Creek about a half mile in, then continues north up along a ridge away from the creek to a spot where the sounds of civilization fade away. First, I stopped by the creek, took out my notebook, and recorded the sounds there. Then I moved on and sat in the grass as I got halfway up the ridge and recorded the sounds there. That was my list, sounds, not sights.

When I got home, I went through my notes and started a poem. It went through several, I should say lots, of revisions. As a matter of fact I thought I was finished with it and discovered it might be better if I removed myself from the poem and just wrote about the sounds. I saved a copy of the original poem and then renamed the file and the poem and revised it to remove myself from it. Well, I am in the poem toward the end, but only sort of tangentially, I think, commenting on what I've heard and its effect on me.

Here it is:

Sounds Of A Prairie Morning

Near the edge of the trail crickets sing for mates.
A meadowlark trills from a mullein stalk.
A grasshopper cruises past, clacking
its way above the grass. A painted lady
flutters by, but her song and wings
are too quiet for human ears.
The low drone of traffic on the highway
a mile away, the sound of human frenzy,
bleeds into the quiet of the prairie.

A pair of Canada geese fly over,
wind whispering in their wings. They call
to make sure the other is still there.
Mourning doves fly up out of the grass,
their wings squeaking softly as they lift.
A goldfinch flies past chirping cheerily.

In a field of thistles by the creek, crickets
are so loud they drowned the crunch of boots,
the gliding whistle of airliners sliding
into the Denver airport, and the growl
of feeder planes climbing to Pueblo,
Albuquerque, and Santa Fe.

What a cacophony of song. I prefer
the voices of the two or three crickets
who sing softly here where I sit, and
other prairie sounds that calm me,
the breeze in my ear,
its whisper in the grass,
the melody of a vesper sparrow,
the whiney call of a red-tailed hawk
high in the blue morning.

These sounds of nature quiet my soul,
remind me of my need for solitude,
remind me of my need to listen 
for my peace and spiritual renewal.

"Sounds of a Prairie Morning" was published in The Weekly Avocet.

I think next issue, I'll talk about some other things that show up in our lives we can use as prompts to help get unstuck.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Books I've found useful for learning the craft of writing

Books on basic good writing

As a writer, I have lots of books on how to write. As a college English teacher 40 years ago, I was often forced into using text books I found less than useful for helping others learn to write. One of the things I discovered in my long-ago careers as student and English teacher is that many English teachers don't know beans about writing. And most of the professors in grad schools know even less.

So, after moving from the teaching of writing into a career as a technical writer, writing about computer systems and software packages, online user guides, and such, I discovered, shock of shocks, I didn't know beans about writing either. I'd been left as road kill by the English teachers I'd been duped by. So I went back to the basics and got out my old, dog-eared, The Elements of Style  by Strunk and White. I recommend this "little book" for people who want to learn to write well. William Strunk wrote it in 1918 for his students at Cornell because he couldn't find any good books on writing. E. B. White, of Charlotte's Web fame and one of Strunk's students, updated it in 1959. I've often said that if I had only one book to use as a reference on writing The Elements of Style would be it.

But, not being limited to just one book, I soon discovered a book that would be my other book, if only allowed two, William Zinsser's On Writing Well. As a pair of reference books on how to write, Elements and On Writing Well can't be beat. During the 30 years I worked as a tech writer I read and reread those two books every year cover to cover. I also dipped into them during the year to refresh my memory or to put a finer point on something I had learned. My biggest problem with On Writing Well was that I kept giving my copies away to people who really needed help. So I was always buying new ones. I must have bought a dozen of those books. Zinsser revised it six times, the seventh edition also being the 25th anniversary edition.

Books on creative writing

When I retired and decided I no longer had an excuse not to write poetry, I discovered that what I had learned from The Elements of Style and On Writing Well were just as valid, if not more so in writing poetry. They both emphasize choosing the correct word, eliminating clutter, and revising for clarity.

As I became more interested in creative writing, I discovered several books that helped me learn about the business and craft of writing. Here's a list of them in alphabetical order. They are all excellent.

     Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande
     Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
     If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland
     Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg

These books give the novice writer some perspectives from which to approach the profession and craft of the creative writer. If I had to pare this list down to two books, I'd say Bird by Bird and Writing Down the Bones. There are other good books, but these are my favorites. I invite anyone reading this blog to add their favorites to the list.

Books on writing poetry

As a poet, I focused on books written by poets whose work I admired and wanted to emulate. Early on, I fell in love with Mary Oliver's poetry. I think I have most of the books she's published. Also got to hear her read at the Tattered Cover here in Denver. What a joy.

Then I discovered Ted Kooser, and met him at the Wyoming Writer's conference in Casper in 2009 where he was the keynote speaker and poetry workshop presenter. Kooser was US Poet Laureate from 2004 – 2006. I have most of his books too.

Oliver and Kooser have both written books on the craft of poetry and are my go-to books. I read and reread them and dip into them now and again for encouragement when things aren't going well.

     A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver
     The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser 

Of course there's no better learning experience than to read the works of the good authors in the your field of creative writing. Kooser said in one of his workshops that he tells his poetry students they should read 100 poems for each one they write. Writers are readers and we learn most by reading, but usually after reading some of the essential craft books written by good writers.

One book on the day-to-day business of writing

One last book I'd recommend. It focuses on the day-to-day business of writing. The title tells it all, Around the Writer's Block by Rosanne Bane. The book presents a lot of research to justify her recommendations for becoming less resistant to sitting down and writing and developing more discipline. But, as interesting as that is, I found that the nuts and bolts of her recommendations to be exactly what I need to keep my writing process going. Basically, she has suggestions for breaking bad habits by substituting good ones that keep our butts in the writing chair for more time each day.

Bane recommends making small commitments to your craft that you can easily keep, like writing 15 minutes a day for three to five days a week rather than saying you'll write for two hours, six days a week. She calls these product commitments because the final goal is to get some writing project completed.

She has two other categories of activities one should commit to for keeping the writing going. One she calls process time, and it involves activities that help get the imagination fired up, like quietly listening to music while doing nothing else. Or reading good literature, meditating, ambling along in nature.

The other category is self-care time, walking, yoga, bicycling, swimming, activities that help keep the body tuned as well as the brain and imagination. These three categories often overlap and the writer is doing two or three at once. She offers several kinds of tools and example records to help one stay committed to her processes.

I like her idea of making commitments small to start with and then working up, if you chose, to longer ones. Or of staying with the shorter ones, but finding the time each day to extend them.  She also has a website with examples of charts and tools to download to help the writer stay the course. (http:// around-the-writers-block-forms/)

So, now you have your book list for summer reading. Of course read some fun things too while you're on vacation or just trying to find a really good excuse not to write. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Some Haiku I Wish I'd Have Written

I thought for this week, I'd share some haiku that I envy, ones I wish I had written. They come from different sources and reflect the varying styles of haiku. They show that lots of things are fair game and that modern haiku comes in different flavors.

I remembered one I really liked but couldn't find it, and as I scoured Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, I came across this one which is almost as good. It was written by Stanford M. Forrester of Windsor, CT.

haiku walk —
a flower pollinates
my notebook

This haiku is striking because of the surprise of the last line. Many teachers of haiku recommend haiku walks in which the poet walks deliberately, observes carefully, and takes notes, either in a notebook or mentally. Obviously this walk was worth the time.

Here is another from Frogpond that was selected as the best of those in the previous journal.

            summer heat
            strands of her hair not captured
            by her braid

The ambiguity of this haiku is what makes me love it, as well as the sexy and sensual image. And who's "summer heat" are we to notice? Hers? His? The weather? This one was written by Michael Ketchek of Rochester, NY.

Another, less sensual but equally effective haiku selected as the best of the previous issue of Frogpond, starts with weather but heads into a different direction. It's by Peter Newton of Winchendon, MA.

            afternoon rain
            emptying a book
            of its words.

The next haiku was written by Issa, one of the great haiku masters of 19th Century Japan. It shows his great regard for nature and reminds me of how I ignore spiders in the house or talk to them, warning them about not coming near Kathy, my wife.
don't worry spiders
            I keep house

This next two haiku are by my haiku partner and mentor, Chris Valentine, from Birney, MT. She lives in a tiny town on a hill overlooking the big sky and hills of the Tongue River valley. Winters can be tough up there, cold, snowy, lonesome.

            snow falls
            a silent landscape broken
            by squabbling finches

            snow and more snow
            friends reduced to images
            across the phone line

This next haiku was written by another friend who co-teaches a haiku class with me, Ginny Hoyle. She wrote it as part of a project in which a painter and a poet are paired to produce a painting and a poem tied to the painting. The haiku is then painted on the canvas and tells about the painting better than any description I might write.

            over dark water
            under dark skies

The shape of the haiku suggests the painting. One strange but fascinating aspect of this haiku is that the dark water in it is over the ducks and the dark skies under them. A result of Ginny's delightful sense of poetry and humor, which is also obvious from this next haiku of hers.

            night walk
            trespassing on my neighbor's snow
            a stop sign's shadow

Another haiku with a surprise in the last line. Makes it one I wished I had written. But then Ginny's imagination far exceeds mine.

So you see the wide range of subjects for haiku. And the various formats, from 5-7-5 to shorter lines and even one in which the line length is very different from the usual short line, long line, short line, to one where lines 1 and 3 are long to frame the ducks.

I've saved two of my favorite haiku for last. Both come from a small chapbook of haiku, The Deep End Of The Sky, by a wonderful poet from Pierre, SD, Chad Lee Robinson. A friend recommended the book and I ordered it recently from the publisher, Turtle Light Press,  Arlington, VA.


Another surprise at the end of this haiku. Perhaps it's just my old pilot's habit of looking at the sky overhead and then down to the horizon, but the words of this haiku, leading down to the prairie, almost seem to bend from overhead to the prairie horizon. This is the one haiku that if I could steal and call mine, I would. I read it and was amazed.

Here's the other haiku on that page, about as good. I'll just offer the haiku and shut up so as not to spoil the effect.

            meadowlark —
            all you'll ever need to know
            about sunrise