Saturday, January 4, 2014

Five Things that Don't Suck, Looking on the Bright Side Edition

1. the lights on the snow last night were pretty gorgeous
2. the squirrels are too cold to leave their little squirrel houses, and therefore too cold to raid our compost bin
3. bunny tracks in the snow are freakin' adorable
4. it will be warmer today
5. it all melts eventually

Friday, January 3, 2014

Five Things that Don't Suck, Snow Day Edition

1. getting way less snow than predicted
2. our neighbor, Dennis
3. Dennis' tractor, which he uses to clear snow from our driveway (and that of everyone else on the street)
4. not really needing to go anywhere for a while
5. not watching television, and therefore being largely insulated from the "it's snowing and we're all gonna die!" hype

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Five Things that Don't Suck, Find-A-Muse Edition

For your viewing pleasure today, here are five sites with some incredible photographs that don't suck. You might want to write about:

1. these pictures of places we've abandoned. I have drafted three poems about them in the past few days, and my thoughts about them are helping me figure out what questions I want to ask next in my work. Good stuff
2. these kind-of-hilarious/kind-of-maybe-genius inventions 
3. this underwater city in Egypt. Because underwater cities are awesome
4. these pictures of people offering the best of themselves
5. these pictures of cool and sometimes unwise things people have done in Antarctica (and other cold places). I am especially fond of the picture about a quarter of the way down the page, where it looks like that one penguin on the left just sneezed really, really hard

I don't usually offer prompts, but here's one for you: find a photograph that interests you. Do a little research (and by little, I mean "precious little"--Wikipedia will probably be fine) and see if you can dig up some language. See if you can figure out why the picture is speaking to you, even if you can't figure out what it's trying to say. Then do some writing if you want.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Out with the Old (Goals), In with the New (Goals)

Well, here we are, Day 1 of a new year. All of my numbers reset today, and it's time to be thinking about new goals. It's been time for at least a week now, but I haven't been able to come up with anything I'm truly happy about. How did I do with last year's goals, you asked? Glad you mentioned it.

Last December, I made a goal for 2013: I wanted to run 750 miles over the course of the year and walk 250, for a grand total of 1,000 miles on my feet. The walking goal was sort of a "gimme"—five miles a week wasn't that big a deal, really, especially since I'd walk at least three miles doing the warm up and cool down from my run, but the running goal was a stretch. It required an average of 15 miles a week, and by the end of 2012 I was lucky to be running ten.

Despite a knee injury that cut my ability to run way back during the second half of the summer and a chunk of the fall, I ran 803 miles in 2013. I actually ran a bit more than that—there are a couple of weeks in there where I got busy and apparently didn't log my runs but instead just wrote a series of question marks. I have no idea what I was thinking, but I was under quite a bit of stress, so I'm not really surprised. But 803 is what the numbers add up to, so that's what I'm claiming for the year. On top of that, I walked 450 miles even (really), for a grand total of 1,253 miles on my feet last year.

If you had told me two years ago that this was possible, I would have called you crazy. All of a sudden (if 22 1/2 months can be considered "all of a sudden"), I can run 10-minute miles without straining my breath, and faster if I want to work. I have a better balance. I eat better. I sleep better. I survived the most difficult two years of my life and came out the other side feeling clear and, if not in control, at least relatively comfortable with the things I can't control. Mostly, though, I feel capable—the word I usually use is mighty—and able to do just about anything I set my mind to.

Other exciting things happened in 2013, and I hope things will get even better in 2014, but for now, this is good. So where do I go from here?

I've been trying to think about good goals for myself. Manageable, but challenging goals, goals that will keep me motivated and interested. I often have a writing goal for myself for a year, but right now what I really need to do is write some poems while I figure out what's next, not just in terms of creating a second manuscript but of figuring out what I want to say next. It's coming to me as I write, and I want to leave myself open to whatever shows up, so I guess the closest thing to a writing goal I can come up with is this: Just write.

That's harder for me than it sounds. I like to count things. I like specific challenges. I like focus and drive and quantifiable success. Success for me, this year, is going to be measured not in how much I write or how often but in what I find to say. And yes, figuring that out is going to mean making time to write and time to think and time to read and time to dream. But in general, it's going to mean letting go of my need to justify myself and just allowing myself to be a poet. If you know me, you know what kind of challenge I'm setting for myself here.

As for running, I think maybe an even thousand miles sounds good for this year. And rather than setting a walking goal, I've been thinking that maybe I'll just set an on-my-feet goal of 1,500 miles for 2014. Fifteen hundred miles on my feet, with a thousand miles of them running. Sounds like a plan. I'll let you know how it goes.

Meanwhile, friends, please don't set resolutions about what you aren't—I'll be better about housework, I'll move more, I'll lose that 40 pounds, I'll spend less time on the internet, I'll stop eating sweets—and think about setting goals for what you want—I'll find my own kindness, I'll be good to myself and others, I'll recognize the good in myself and nurture it. Like most worthwhile endeavors, it's easier said than done, so we'd best get started.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Auld Lang Syne Edition

1. sleeping in
2. hot breakfast
3. hand-knitted wool socks with a totally inappropriate reindeer motif
4. drafting a poem first thing
5. not having a hangover

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Last Day of the Year Edition

1. finding goals instead of resolutions
2. not drinking and driving
3. clean slates
4. having a friend who understands (then mocks) the jinx involved in her declaring that 2014 will be my year, then backpedals just enough to be fairly hilarious (hi, Nan!)
5. finding 1,825 more things that don't suck next year

Monday, December 30, 2013

Two Extra Things That Really Really Don't Suck (The Crafty Poet and The Daily Poet)

If I were forced to use five words to sum up Diane Lockward's new craft book The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop or The Daily Poet: Day-by-Day Prompts for Your Writing Practice by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano, I would do so like this: five poems in three days. Lucky for me, I'm not required to use just five words to talk about these two books. Lucky for you, too.

I don't know about you, but I tend to write in spurts. Sometimes, the bursts have artificial boundaries, like committing to writing a poem a day for the month of April, or doing deliberate work in preparation for giving a workshop or attending a retreat. Other times, the bursts are obsessive, subject-driven weeks or months where I wrestle a topic on the page until one or both of us are exhausted. In general, I'm either reading a lot or writing a lot, but seldom both. When I'm being generous with myself, I think of my reading periods as "lying fallow," allowing myself to soak up some nutrients before I produce more crops. (When I'm not being generous with myself, I think of these periods as "being lazy," or "fooling myself," but that's another post for another day.)

I set out to deliberately change the pace in autumn, deciding to devote those three months to pretty much reading nothing but poetry and seeing what happened. I was fairly well spent by the end of the summer: after over two years of mourning, during which I wrote some of my most difficult (and strongest) poems, I had suddenly come back into myself in terms of poetry. I could think on a large scale again, had used that newly rediscovered space in my head to reconnect with some poets I love, had found my way into using those new, difficult poems to anchor a full-length manuscript. The book felt—and continues to feel—right to me, like I've found the proper way to present this work, but at the same time, I came out the other side with what might be the least-favorite question of any artist anywhere: Now what? This was quickly followed by my second-least-favorite question: What if I don't have anything else to say?

And thus All-Poetry Autumn was born. Toward the end of the summer, I picked up The Crafty Poet. Born from Diane Lockward's almost ridiculously successful and useful monthly poetry newsletter and her blog, The Crafty Poet is a collection of craft tips, prompts, discussion, and sample poems from 100 poets of all stripes. A couple of sample poems follow each prompt, and each of the ten themed sections ends with a bonus prompt. The prompts are re-useable, open-ended, and largely craft-focused, so that instead of being encouraged to write about a favorite childhood pet or a lemon, readers are, for example, instructed to find two closely related words (like palace and castle) and see where they lead. "Get an object in there," we're told, and "This might be hard. All the better and the deeper the reward." Indeed.

I'm just as likely to begin drafting a poem just from the sheer experience of reading about them, or reading poems themselves—as response or argument, or because a phrase stokes something in me that I need to feed or quench—and The Crafty Poet is full of opportunities for that, too. Written with a knowledgeable audience in mind, it's the kind of book that can both help a poet grow and grow with her, a valuable addition to any poet's shelves.

My other favorite new poetry book is The Daily Poet, which came about through the prompts Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano developed as part of their writing practice. The book contains 366 prompts—a prompt for every day, including during leap years—and is organized so that each prompt stands alone on its page. Take it or leave it, there is your prompt for the day, although of course it's possible to leaf through the pages, looking for a prompt that feels right. I'm resisting the temptation to do that at the moment, because prompts can go stale on me if I read them too frequently, while pretending I'm bound to some sort of requirement can help me force myself out of my own ruts. After two years of writing poems of grief and poems that I thought at the time were about something innocuous like an insect or a crab and are actually all about grief, it's natural that I began to wonder if I knew how to write anything else anymore. So it was lovely to come across the prompt for December 27 (imagine you're an alien and describe what you see here) or December 28 (write about a favorite childhood food) and stretch my legs a bit. Did the poem about being an alien end up being instead a poem about forgetting? Why yes. Yes, it did. Did the poem about a favorite childhood food get all mixed up with two prompts from Lockward's book, one which asked me to write in the negative ("I am not…") and one which asked me to write an extravagant love poem? Yes again.

The joy of a really good prompt (or 366 of them) is that it leaves the writer free to tinker and invent, or to rebel and invert it and kick it out on its ass. Agodon and Silano are clear about their intent: read the prompt, then let the poem do what it wants. Not every prompt is going to lead to a draft, and not every draft is going to lead to a worthwhile poem, but every exercise is worth doing. In order to write well, we need to be willing to write new, and sometimes that means writing badly—we learn, after all, from our mistakes, not from what we do right. With The Crafty Poet and The Daily Poet at hand, I still have excuses—I'm too tired, I don't have room in my head, I'd rather have a beer—but I don't think I can ever again say I don't have anything to write about. In the past three days, I've found five things to write poems about. If you haven't picked up a copy yet—of one or both—you should. You won't regret it.

Five Things that Don't Suck, Last Monday of 2013 Edition

1. last-minute breakfast invitation from a good friend
2. being able to help out another friend
3. people who still have their Christmas lights up and on
4. being happy with where you are
5. patience*


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Five Things that Don't Suck, Sunday Morning Random Edition

1. getting inspiring/artistic emails from inspiring/artistic friends
2. how thin the Sunday paper is without all the pre-Christmas inserts
3. a quick 4-mile run
4. getting together with friends for the last regular-season game
5. realizing that the Pats played better without me listing a #5 last week.*

*Oh, Wes. You'll always be #5 in my heart.