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.


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.

Rather inflammatory stuff

Wanting inspiration, I just reread a favorite passage from Robertson Davies’ novel, The Cunning Man.

In it, Dr. Hullah, a Canadian physician during World War II is assigned to a hospital ward in Oxford, England to care for 26 young men seriously wounded by friendly fire.  They suffer from amputations, head injuries, and shellshock.  All are angry and resentful, despairing about their future.

As he listens to them, it dawns on Hullah that this rage, this disillusion, this disappointment was not what it seemed.  It was the duct through which flowed an unhappiness and a pathos that lay at the very bottom of the spirit, and might perhaps be inborn…. What to do?

One day, he bicycles into town and finds himself in a bookshop.  Poetry was what he wanted, not poems that would appear to dispense education or culture but the sort of anthology that might appeal to everyman.  I needed poetry, or better call it verse, that would catch the ear, stick in the memory and tell a story.  With simple poems of grievance, merit overlooked and injustice nobly born, he institutes a regular reading hour.  Slowly these men who had suffered wrong—wrong that was nobody’s fault…or certainly not the fault of anybody who can be identified—begin to open up and talk among themselves.

He is eventually summoned by his supervisor who says he’s heard that Hullah is exposing  the men to some rather inflammatory stuff.

How wonderful to find in poetry this inflammatory stuff, words that open us up to the fear, sadness, anger or anxiety at the bottom of our spirit, inborn or not. This is what I want for myself when I am troubled and for all who suffer:  not the edification, pleasure or even enlightenment poetry can offer but simple, resonant language that sticks in memory and tells a story we need to hear.

Poetry for a dollar

Friend, I bought it

at the Tenleytown bus stop

in front of Best Buy

from the poet himself,

a soft-spoken man in suit and tie

who stepped up from behind

and made me his offer—

crisp photocopy of a handwritten poem

dated yesterday.


The bus arrived and I hustled on board

with my purchase.

I like the poem about TV and rainbows

but what haunts me still

is the man himself

a poet like me

who thought his work worthy

of strangers’ regard

and cash on the spot


and this:  that poetry could simply

show up at a bus stop

like the school child in uniform,

the elder with bags en route to the store

or the middle-aged woman

who just dropped off her car at the shop.

Trashing the Black Notebooks

It was one thing to let go of most of my library when I moved.  It was quite another to trash the black notebooks, a collection of three-ring binders in which I kept my journal from 1965-1995. I reread each volume a few years ago in preparation for letting them go—but I wasn’t ready.  Then, this month, with just a glance at the first page of each as I snapped open the rings and moved the thick stack of lined paper from black notebook to black trash bag, I completed the job I’d set for myself.  It hurt.  I still don’t feel quite the release I hope for. But it felt like a necessary task.

Now here’s a question that intrigues me.  Why, after 1995, did my journals change dramatically?  I moved from lined paper to unlined sketchbooks and from verbal to visual entries (sketches, photos, collage, mandalas, clips from periodicals, short quotes, commentaries and notes).  Even my handwriting changed. 

True, I’d recently attended a workshop on keeping a visual journal.  Coincidentally, my sister sent me a colorful day book in which I kept notes.  More important I think were the big changes in my marriage, my career and my creative life.  I never thought of 1995 as a watershed but it was.  I have no reason to hold on to the record of the years prior.  I lived them.  They formed me.  But truth be known, I never browsed through the black notebooks like I do the visual journals. They shine a light on my path.  They continue to inspire me.  They make me smile in a way the black notebooks never did.


Poised, no longer


       you wait as every part of you sheds

              what once was,

                                    and is no longer


This is a stanza from the only poem that’s ever been dedicated to me.  It’s called “Prayer For The Wild Voice” by my fellow poet Cheryl Hellner and first appeared in Heron Dance, a  journal of art and nature.  I go back to it often during times of uncertainty or change.

 Your pen, poised over an empty page

Your life, no longer settled

Your dwelling, shed of so much that is no longer necessary

You wait, and this  waiting is active, physically exhausting, mindless.  You prepare for the unknown, you listen for a voice within that must be set free.  You set it free.

Odd Volumes

A personal library is not a collection of odd volumes:  It is the outward representation of one’s inner life, a mirror of the soul, the past spread out before your eyes.

                                                                                                        Michael Dirda

                                                                                                       The Washington Post

 I will be moving soon.  Time to choose among my possessions, decide what to pack and what to leave behind.  Books are the hardest to cull.  It’s not that I could not take them all—it’s that I want to travel light and make space for what is new.  When I was younger, this was easy, a matter of course.  Not now.

My well-thumbed copy of Sound and SenseAn Introduction to Poetry has followed me since high school.  It will make the move.  Knowing Woman by Irene Claremont de Castijello has been seminal in my development as a woman and will certainly come.  But what about Märchen der Brűder Grimm and the other volumes from German language study and travel in my 20s?  What about Thomas Merton and the other spiritual writers who enriched my 30s?  the outdated but once essential and still prized texts and reference books from my clinical years?  the anthologies in which my work appears?

Then there are the Tony Hillerman murder mysteries that I (who’d never read murder mysteries) was delighted to discover because they taught me about Navajo culture and introduced me to memorable characters like Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.  There’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a massive tome I bought one bleak winter but have never got around to reading because that stage of life seems to have passed and the collections of personal essays (Lewis Thomas, Bill Holm, Kathleen Norris) that have come to me at critical times in my life.  As my eyes roam each shelf, I am flooded with memories.

Dirda is right.  A personal library is a mirror of the soul, a record of one’s journey through life.  Still, all of my books, even those that won’t accompany me this time, have already left their mark.  That will be my consolation as I drop them off at Goodwill or some other station along the way to their next destination.