Free Cell

You hear about the cheats writers have to avoid facing the blank page.  They sharpen pencils they’ll never use, eat, wash dishes, run errands, hunt for a lost sock.  My cheat is Free Cell. It’s a highly addictive form of solitaire, almost always winnable but sometimes extremely challenging, installed on all Windows operating systems since 1995.  I don’t know exactly when I discovered it and started to play, but it was at least 10,000 games ago. Ctrl+Z lets you erase your mistakes.  One click and you begin a new game.  Surely this is just junk food for the mind.  And yet!

For me there’s something restorative about manipulating numbers rather than words.  And isn’t finding patterns in a scramble of red and black cards roughly parallel to the process of bringing order to words and ideas that first appear in the imagination and must be wrestled into poetic form or crafted into a coherent essay? 

 While I admit to real satisfaction when I win, there is a point beyond which taking refuge in Free Cell is not therapeutic and the ease of the one-click access to a new game does not enhance my artistic practice.  New ideas emerge in the shower or on a walk but not so far while playing a computer game.  But we all need something to reboot ourselves.  This is a confession and a commitment.  A confession that I’ve squandered hours of my one wild and precious life playing an unnecessary game and a commitment to hold myself responsible for redeeming more of the hours still allotted to me. 

 Thus, one last confession:  It took 42 Free Cell games to write this short reflection.

Working Poems

Poetry is dead, they say.  I don’t know who they are or what evidence they have of the demise but I hear and read this claim regularly.  Now consider.  Poetry slams and spoken word poetry attract large and enthusiastic young audiences.  Rap is a powerful and pervasive popular form.  Professions like mine in health care have recognized the value of the arts, poetry in particular, in communicating with each other, our students and those we care for.  Poems still appear in a number of newspapers and general periodicals.  You hear poetry at weddings, anniversaries and funerals.  You sometimes hear it from the pulpit or podium.  At times of crisis in their lives, non-poets are sometimes driven to express themselves in poetry even though it may remain known only to themselves.  High art or academic poetry may lack a wide readership but it finds publishers.

 I like to think that my poems have work in the world, that they pull on their blue, pink or white- collared shirts each morning and troop off purposefully to do honest labor in a hospital, hospice,  school or home.  They may boost someone’s spirits, provide comfort or diversion, tell a story or offer perspective.  They might provide the key to unraveling some puzzle. They may inspire reflection or contemplation. 

 Am I making too great a claim?  Perhaps—but not entirely.  I’ve had enough feedback along the way to trust that many of my poems find readers ready to receive them.  Once this happens their work is done.

The Poetry of Witness

I recently watched this 2015 documentary featuring Carolyn Forché and five other contemporary poets who have used poetry to describe and illuminate their experiences of war, imprisonment, exile and other kinds of extremity.  Forché herself spent time in El Salvador during the brutal civil war of the 1980s and published a collection titled The Country Between Us featuring poems from those years in which she allows her imagination to work on experience to create art.  The results, she says, stand as evidence of what happened to her and others during that time.  She believes that, at the heart of what she has written, is truth.

I found her words encouraging because I often think back on poems I have written about my own years as a witness to struggle and suffering.  As a nurse, I have doubted my right to speak for a patient whose son has been murdered on the street, a heroin-addicted woman who has given birth to yet another child she did not want, a bedbound elder alone and visited by no one, or a Salvadoran mother who left her children behind when she made the terrifying migration to Washington DC and suffers physically and emotionally as a result.  Is it unethical? patronizing?  necessary?  One thing I have come to believe—I can give voice to those who are voiceless.  Even though my imagination plays on my memories and perspective as witness, I trust that I can illuminate their lives through my words.  They have souls.  Their stories should be told.

Becoming the Making

…some people pick up their tools.

Others become the making itself.

                           Rumi

 I came across these lines from Rumi while prowling through the bookshelves at Dayspring Retreat Farm here in Maryland a few weeks ago.  I’m trying to understand them.  Nurses are often taught that they are their most important tool.  They use their minds, hearts and bodies to offer knowledge, compassion and physical care.

 Does this apply to poets?  If so, how?  Surely it’s not about the persona of the stereotypical poet —eccentric, intellectual, self-referential, lost to the world of everyday.

 A friend once told me she dreamed that I lived in the house of poetry.  It was her dream, not mine.  Still, I’ve not forgotten it—even used it in some verses of a poem. 

 My friend had a dream

that I lived in the house of poetry.

A woodsy cottage with just one door or

a light-filled penthouse floating on cloud?

She never told.     

 

I sit at my desk, mind adrift

in the vast rooms of imagination

idly plucking at words

those glittering singularities

 

each a miniature universe

primed for its own Big Bang

set to create real estate

on this blank page.

 Is this what Rumi meant by becoming the making? 

The Artist in Her Studio

“When I’m in an exam room with a patient, I feel like an artist in her studio.”  This is what my long-time colleague and dear friend Teresa says about her work as a family nurse practitioner in a busy clinic in the heart of Washington, DC.  I’ve been reflecting on the idea of the clinician as artist.  Truth is, I’ve never felt exactly that way.  Yes, I worked as an FNP in a similar setting for many years.  As time went on, I felt competent, confident, and fully prepared to help my patients.  Sometimes I felt like a true healer.  But an artist in her studio?  This gives me pause. 

 When I was in practice, I recorded patient encounters first in (paper) charts, then at home I’d let my feelings about them spill  into journal entries.  Some of these became poems or essays months or years later.  “Just who do you think you are, Maggie Jones?” I once wrote in utter frustration about a patient whose needs were far beyond my capacity to meet.   Later, Maggie became a poem that helped me reconcile my feelings about her and grasp what she had to teach me.  The same thing happened with others like Lady Jane Jackson, Miss Mary, Bennie Smith, reckless Bobby and baby Star. 

 As years went on, I found myself tackling challenging clinical issues like the limited usefulness of preventive health screening, the disruption caused by electronic medical records, the question of what to do about incidental findings, the role of placebos, the short life of most “gold standard” treatments, the many unfounded promises of cure and so on.  Yes, I read the professional literature but I also relied on my art to understand and learn.  Therefore these themes, too, became fodder for poems.

 I love the image of the clinician as artist and the exam room as studio.  It’s not a simile or metaphor.  It’s reality.  Medicine and nursing are a blend of art and science.  One informs the other and master clinicians find a way to use each to gain the wisdom that knowledge and skill alone can’t provide. 

Long story short

I marvel at those who can spin an elaborate tale.  Take Jane Smiley.  I just finished reading her 1400-page Some Luck trilogy.  In three books, one chapter for each year from 1920-2019, she tells the story of the Langdons, an Iowa farm family, as they and five generations of their descendants make their way through a century and the world.  It’s also a cultural history of those decades.  So much was recognizable to me—the particular toy a child received for Christmas, the breakfast cereal another ate, the cult that one of the young women managed to escape, the parts of Washington DC that I happen to know, wars, political and financial upheavals and so on. 

How did she research and construct it?  How did she create and manage dozens of characters whom I could barely keep track of with the aid of the family tree printed inside each front cover? How did she keep me engrossed through 1400 pages and 100 years?

Me?  I’m one who starts a story then grows too impatient to flesh it out with color, detail and interesting asides.  Even among friends who are in a listening mood, I’m overtaken by the impulse to condense:

 Long story short, we made it through. 

Long story short, that letter to the editor never got published. 

Long story short, it was him all along.

In poetry and essays, I enjoy cutting to the quick, distilling a thought to its essence and letting the rest vaporize. To layered meaning, metaphor and resonant language I say yes, but weaving an elaborate tapestry of people, places, and plot—it’s simply not my métier.

Long story short, I like to think that poetry and essay (including the short notes I post here) are gifts I have to give.  Each of us has a hunger for variety but a unique expression of creativity. I’m gratified to have discovered what mine is. 

Morning in the library

I look past tightly packed stacks

            through plate glass.

Branch loads of leaves have escaped

            from their trunks.

They have stories to tell.

The breeze knows this,

            leafs through in search

            of the one it wants to hear.

I don’t like to force a poem into consciousness or onto the page.  Poems should come when they’re ready.  But that’s exactly what I did a number of years ago on the last day of a summer writers’ conference at a college in northern California.  I’d led my sessions and critiqued my group’s work but hadn’t written anything myself.  I’d hoped to leave with something—even a rough draft that might languish in my mulch file.  I took myself and my yellow legal pad to the campus library, determined to sit there until something emerged then sat for a couple of hours scribbling mindlessly until I lost focus and my gaze drifted down the rows of stacks through the full length windows to a dense grove of trees just outside, their branches swaying in a light wind.  Books.  Trees.  Breeze.  After a time, a phrase emerged, then a metaphor, then a small poem. 

It satisfied me.  Even now, when I read it again and close its 42-word file unedited, I remember the year, place and occasion.  Should I do more of this “forced” writing, maybe follow William Stafford’s poem-a-day practice?  Truth is, I don’t have that kind of ambition.  But I have patience.  I enjoy being a vessel, ready to receive whatever inspiration my muse provides.

A very private medium

In my earlier post about trashing the black notebooks, I wrote about the visual journals I now keep.  Here’s what occurs to me. When it comes to writing a poem, I wait patiently for inspiration.  I spend time sitting quietly or doodling with words.  I open myself to the muse while showering or walking.  Often I come away with nothing, but I’m disciplined about the process.  With my journals it’s different. I don’t ponder.  I act on impulse whenever the mood strikes.  I tear off a magazine cover with a lush garden illustration and start a collage. While reviewing receipts for credit card purchases, I decide to keep the one for two rings and paste it into the journal.  I print out and paste in a photo of our mailbox.  I draw a large circle on a blank page and start filling it in with colors, squiggles and cutouts.  Often captions will occur to me—something related to what’s going on in my life. Occasionally it’s the reverse:  a line of poetry or a newspaper headline catches my attention and inspires an entry.  The visuals follow.

These small books don’t tell the story of my life.  If anything, they represent a random walk through my mind.  In some way I don’t fully understand, they give shape to my psyche.  I support those who curate and share their lives on social media—I suppose that’s what I’m doing here in a very limited way.  But I’ll continue to devote time to gathering up miscellany from my daily life and storing it like grain in a granary for private consumption when I feel reflective, unsettled or hungry for direction.

Recycled

It was dumb luck (along with some serious efforts at promotion) that the 2000 copy print run of my poetry collection, Rehab at the Florida Avenue Grill, sold out and even went into a second printing.   I knew nothing about print runs for slim volumes of poetry published by private presses like mine.   I was merely thinking about economies of scale.  The more copies I print, the lower the unit cost.

When my next collection, Clinician’s Guide to the Soul, was ready for publication nine years later, I again decided to go for 2000 copies.  This time I did not promote it as actively as I had Rehab and sales reflected that.  Toward the end of last year, as I was weeding out the garden of my life, I looked forlornly at the unopened cartons of the Guide—1000 copies remained—and decided that most of them had to go.  But where?  Who would want them?  I eventually settled on Donation Nation, a company here in Maryland that bills itself as the world’s greenest removal service.  They take anything you’ve got and recycle or redistribute it.

I like not knowing what exactly happened to these precious emissaries of mine.  I let them go, just as I did with each copy I sold. 

In my poem, “The Poet’s Job” (see said Clinician’s Guide), I imagined poets as tinkers, picking through a vast mulch heap of words, images and mystery to make something new.  Maybe one of the 700 books I “donated” will end up in the hands of one of these literary tinkers.   Failing that, I hope the books are pulped and re-emerge as clean sheets of paper ready for anything from a shopping list to a to child’s drawing to the draft of a new poem.  In that way, the cycle of renewal continues and I can find peace.

 

New York Book Fair

March 10th at the Park Avenue Armory.  It’s the 58th Annual New York International Antiquarian Book Fair.  There are about 200 exhibitors from the United States, Europe, Japan.  I wander the aisles among collectors, agents, booksellers, scouts and browsers.  Although a devoted reader,  I myself am none of these.  I am not drawn to signed first editions with their original jackets, fine copies, leather bindings, author ephemera or novelty publications.  But, to my surprise, I almost buy a book.

I spot it at the Kelmscott booth on Aisle E.  It’s a small, handmade, hardbound limited edition with the curious title To Protect and Serve.  Did it have something to do with law enforcement?  I pick it up.  Inside I find reproductions of 1960s and 70s-era ads for everything from electric frying pans and Crock-Pots to the Chevy Nova and Boeing 747.  Turns out it was inspired by a call for entries to a contest with the theme “vessel.”  The bookmaker, Karen Hamner, includes wry commentary with each illustration gleaned from her memory, imagination and, yes, Wikipedia.  Did I say it was priced at $350?  I am enchanted but, in the end, do not buy.

Why?  I could have afforded one extravagance.  Now that the impulse has subsided, I realize that this was not the kind of art that would feed my soul over time, not something I wanted to possess so that I could reach for it again and again.  It gave me what my mother would call a shock of happiness, the only one to do so among the thousands of books in that hall.  I’m glad Karen Hamner made it.  I hope someone will buy it.  As for me, I kissed the joy and let it fly.