Friday, April 4, 2014

asking the right questions


I have been talking to people about ghost sightings lately.  And I've been revisiting the past in the form of drives & confessions.  These days I listen to less music than I should.  But I play podcasts about poetry & crime & quirky details from history.  I pray for altruistic dreams--a synchronistic moment that might inspire some meaningful epiphany.

It's National Poetry Month, and I've been writing a poem a day.  Something electric in the air when you feel the hive buzzing.  A few days ago an orange moth landed on the side of my car.  Driving down Wilshire in heavy traffic with the windows down, I feared the butterfly demon would fly into my car, bite my wrist.  Little monster, beautiful interloper.  Maybe from his point of view, I was the villain--a coffee drinking drifter with unflappable wings.

Jealousy, envy.  Do you feel it sometimes, that hint of green in your chest?  The wish to be a star in the galaxy or a paintbrush in an artist's hand?  In her TED talk, Ode to Envy, Parul Sehgal suggests that all literature may arise out of jealousy.

Such a gorgeous thought.

Writing, the alchemy through which we transform self-hatred into love.

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke advises an indecisive youth to "love the questions themselves" instead of hunting for answers, which may not be ready to surface.

What if the questions we've been asking aren't the right ones?

Monday, February 17, 2014

my poems aren't "fact"


I am reading Mindy Kaling's hilarious & engaging essay collection, Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me?  I bought it a couple of weeks ago when I attended the Young Women's Conference at Brentwood School.  Reading it has made me wonder if I would ever have the guts to write a memoir.  She makes it seem like so much fun.  But then again, she's M.K., a popular celebrity with a television series, which makes reading about her life an entertaining jaunt.  And despite her humorous asides and quirky observations, I'm guessing the facts of her life as she shares them are generally true.

If I wanted to write my life's chapters in prose, I would want to do it after I've spent some more time in the surreal world of poetry, where it's acceptable to bend the truth.  I'd also need to develop thicker skin.  Some would argue that poems are similar to memoir, are equally confessional.  I think poetry has often been read this way.  But reading poetry only this way might be limited and less creative.  Many poems are fictional in a sense.  In my poems, for instance, the voice is my own, the sentiment true, but the content may be exaggerated or invented.  The content is the conduit for expressing a feeling.  Sometimes it's a product of my conscious mind, and sometimes it's a product of my subconscious.  I've written poems in the voice of a sociopathic killer and a Buddhist monk.  As a detective, trapeze artist, and a misplaced slipper.  This is because poetry, the way I experience it, lives in the realm of dream consciousness.

Dreams, like poems, spring in part from the subconscious mind--are both real and imagined.  They are mysterious.  This is the kind of world I try to create in my own poems...a world where reality is invented and re-discovered, even when I'm recounting a story I actually experienced.  I may change the details if it serves the poem.  I may invent plot twists if it helps make a poem more luminous or strange.  Like a storyteller, I want to seduce the reader, and seduction requires a bit of fantasy.  Sometimes I get asked, so is that poem about you?  Did you really find a crocodile under your bed?  Did you really get angry at your friend because she forgot your birthday?  I understand the question.  A lot people associate poetry with personal sentiment.  But poetry, as art, is about more than that.  My first poetry chapbook was subtitled "memoir", by which I meant a memoir of sentiment, experience, & imagination.  So when I get asked about the factual basis of my poems I want to say:  "The point is, did the poem move, entice, or entertain you?"  It would really help to know.

Poets are more similar to fiction writers than we think.  We tell stories.  Sometimes absurd ones.  And because we choose to do so in a form that is associated with memoir, our poems are often read as personal confession.  But that's not always the case.  The details come from our lives, our observations, and our imaginations.  Sometimes they are "real" in the autobiographical sense, just as they are in fiction.  We are really fabulists, pursuing the narrative impulse in photographs & fragments rather than a plumpified plot.  So I would, if I could, make this my too long bumper sticker:  Read poems like a form of imagining, as a journey into a poet's mind, not necessarily as a factual disclosure of her experience in real time.

Thursday, February 6, 2014



Freedom of speech.

I've been thinking about this lately, the power of words in daily conversation.

The way speech can sometimes cross the line, come across as weird, or just plain insensitive.

I've uttered my share of judgmental jargon.

Don't take other people too seriously.

Don't take yourself too seriously.

It's raining today.  Finally, the drought drowned.

My watch needs to be fixed.  Wooden gem, I'll have to mail it to Texas.

Every woman should own a signature necklace.

Sometimes personal questions are inappropriate.

Dreams, snow globes, synchronicities.  I'm glad I still read stories.

I want to choose my words carefully.

"Hofu" is the Swahili word for fear.

Materialism rhymes with minimalism.

I haven't read my horoscope in 18 days.

Forgiveness.  Acceptance.  Humor.

When we're triggered, we're imagining there are ghosts laughing in the room next door.

Wear glasses.  Where are my glasses?

I found your bluntness uncouth.

I'm still learning how to use chopsticks.

To trust myself.

Vulnerability breeds self-responsibility breeds strength.

Strawberry jam.

Not who should I be.  Who do I want to be?

Lightheartedness, and sandalwood soap.

Sunday, February 2, 2014



On the white poppy,
a butterfly’s torn wing
is a keepsake

I've been thinking about minimalism lately--how challenging it is to maintain a clutter free life.  Still I donated some books this weekend.  I listened to a short Buddhism podcast on beauty.  I read and wrote with less urgency.  But the piles continue to accumulate around me, and there is always more stuff to sort through.  I guess the journey toward minimalism is a gradual art.  We throw out some old things, buy new things more judiciously, then repeat.  It begins with the mind.  How to nurture an empty mind----a space so clear we can see the light beneath particles of loquacious thought?  Having too much stuff keeps the mind busy.  Being a poet, I understand the virtues of less.  When I edit a poem, I have to prune adjectives and adverbs.  There is an aspect of editing that involves letting go.  But the end result is typically worth the sacrifice.  Minimalism is about seeing our lives and creative pieces through the lens of a Haiku.  We don't have to write poems that are only seventeen syllables.  We don't have to own just seventeen objects.  But calling to mind a haiku, while writing and living, is a reminder of restraint.  And in restraint there is elegance, a surprising pleasure.  There is something comforting about having fewer things, words, and goals.  Clutter reflects indecision, but is alluring because the possibilities remain open.  Minimalism reflects making a decision, which means placing limits on the possibilities.  And that limitation, though limiting, is also motivating.  Socrates advised, "Know thyself."  And maybe to know ourselves best we should decide what's most important and discard the rest.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

selfish post


No, you may not borrow my stapler, so please stop asking!  I think people should have their own staplers.  It’s uncouth to impose on someone this way.  Yet there’s the counterargument: a compassionate person lets someone borrow things like staplers.  But here’s the conundrum.  I am compassionate, and I still don’t want you to borrow my stapler.  So what do you have to say to that??  No, I’m not cranky.  I’ve had my coffee today.  And I’m thinking of getting some chocolate cookies for snack later, so I'm not feeling deprived or anything.  Someone complimented my nails this morning, and I am wearing the right shoes, which is an added bonus.  So, no, I’m not raising this serious philosophical question out of some vexed mental state...     

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

classic fashion


When it comes to style, I prefer simple classic pieces best.  This is not what my closet always reflects.  Sometimes I wear bright pieces, other times clashing colors.  Still, as I get older, I think it's best to have a small selection of clothes...a uniform of sorts.  Very French, non?  I also think the fashion above suits a detective.  I don't think a magnifying glass would be an out of place accessory with this look.  Agatha Christie said, "Very few of us are what we seem."  Yet Shakespeare viewed life as theatre, advocated role-playing for amusement.  I think I will question some suspects tomorrow.  I will search for clues, maybe wear a red scarf around my neck.  And meanwhile, I've been getting back to poetry recently.  By that I mean writing, reading, and investigating it.  Here's a snippet of one our talks.

Me:  Where have you been hiding since October 2012?

Poetry:  I've been here, in the books on your shelf, the pile of clutter in your apartment, beneath your daily thoughts.  I don't understand your question.

Me:  I get that you think I'm responsible for not seeing you.  But for many years, you made your presence known.  You'd enter my mind while I was driving, doing dishes before I went to bed.  You wore bright colors.  It was impossible not to notice you.  Now you've started to cloak yourself in neutrals and classics, and I feel like I have to search for you.

Poetry:  That's touching, but it sounds like laziness.

Me:  Huh?

Poetry:  In other words, I feel demeaned by your fashion metaphor.

Me:  I thought you were partial to metaphors and open to different kinds.

Poetry:  Well, you started this conversation by putting me on the defensive, so I'm less patient right now.

Me:  What's this really about?

Poetry:  I'm annoyed that people think I need to come knocking on doors wearing a magenta dress.  That I'm somehow separate from people.  Where have I been these past two years?  Suffocating beneath the chatter of your repetitive thoughts.  It's about time we had this talk.

Me:  So what do you suggest we do?

Poetry:  Throw out the ideas you don't need, the clothes you don't wear.  Look sideways at life, and just relax and write.

Me:  You make it sound so simple.

Poetry:  Simplicity sets the stage for beatific thinking.  You try too hard to be a  detective.  Let your poems do the sleuthing.  You should be one of the guests at the party.  Wear whatever you want.  You're only suspect if you avoid doing the work.

Monday, January 20, 2014

155) revising my view of revision (and more on MFA's)

the literary life 12/5/09

Epiphany. I woke up this morning in a bit of a funk, and I soon realized this funk had something to do with poetry. With the psychological pressures I have been putting on my own writing these past few weeks without consciously realizing it. I mean, I got the pen fellowship, and spent several wonderful months immersed in writers and writers. I gave a few public readings that boosted my confidence as a writer, and then it all ended. Full stop. Done. Mini-crash.

The question then arose: what next? I spent several months having these amazing insights. How do I keep pushing my work? The only option that seemed natural was an MFA, and then the Poets and Writers rankings came out, and it seemed like everyone was talking MFA's. But for the time being, this is not a feasible option for me. And then I'm not quite sure how much more school I can do formally...I earned a bachelors then spent 6 years completing two M.A's, then another two years earning a teaching credential. That's over 12 years in post high-school education. It's a lot. And when I left the academy, I was jaded with it. It took me a long time to realize that while I love the university environment, there's a certain place where thinking becomes over-thinking for me.

And maybe the same is true with poetry. I mean, I want to revise and push my work. I want to write my best. But I also don't want to go all OCD on revision (this can happen, I'm sure no matter where we are--inside or outside the academy). And maybe, because I've been reading more poets and listening to more poetry podcasts online and attending more readings and taking more classes I'm starting to cross some line...some line to over-thinking the work. Many contemporary writers would argue that confusion and over-thinking are a good sign--means we're demanding more of ourselves as a writer. I get that, and could certainly keep pushing my head in that direction, but I don't know if I want to.

I guess what I'm getting at is that I want to live on the hyphen between ordinary life and the academy. I want to own the hyphen. I've been pressuring myself lately to think there are two camps and belonging to one means exclusion from the other. And those glossy brochures and websites of MFA programs are so temptingly tempting. Natalie Goldberg has said that the power is in the act of writing. That's where the power is for me. It's those first flush, primary drafts, when the words are just pouring out. A different part of my mind enjoys typing up the poems and reworking them. I mainly take workshops for the writer vibe, for editing, for having people point out tendencies (both good and bad) in my work. I want to revise, but I have also started to trust in this voice I've spent several years developing. I don't want to over-revise, and I think sometimes we tend to over-emphasize critique in poetry circles. Somewhere along that way I've challenged my faith in poems from the body, the heart. Honest, working-class poems. Straight feeling. I believe in the intellect, in revision; I just don't want it to supersede emotion.

A writer's writing evolves naturally and everyone has different aesthetic styles. I've been signing up for workshops with the goal to listen, listen, listen to exactly what others tell me I should do to push my work to the seventh heaven. And now I'm thinking, while the feedback I get is typically kind and well-meaning, maybe I have to trust my own vision more. I mean, that vision got me the pen fellowship. And I'm not done developing as a writer. But I'm okay being on that hyphen with my work: polished with room to grow. I'm willing even to send such work out. Some of this polished with room to grow work has made it into print. Some of it will not, and I can accept that.

I want to pursue THIS mfa: my forming aesthetic. Not out of selfishness or disregard for all the good advice out there. (Not that MFA students aeren't doing this very thing in a more guided and academic way.) But because I've somehow come to occupy the hyphen, which I'm realizing, for the likes of me, isn't such a bad place to be. One can venture in and out of academic circles. One can be whimsical and free in their writing: belonging yet not belonging. I've come full circle. I embrace the poet I was pre-pen. That's who I've been all along. Slow progression. Mini-steps. I'll keep reading, taking workshops. But I'll take a breath when I'm over-thinking my poems. Go back to the first flush. Go back to the poet who writes out of an ordinary need for the page. I'll listen to my work: let it tell me what to do.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

starry night starry night

poetry writer.  mystery lover
December 5th

I could live forever in Van Gogh’s too many shades of blue.  At night, the stars unveil themselves, counting the people down below.  Yellow, green, white.  Those walking in the street seem fragments of building.  I wonder, what is the server’s name?  If the chairs people sit on are comfortable?  In college, I almost bought a poster of this painting at the university bookstore, but I was afraid I’d drink too much coffee.  It was the cliché dorm decoration.  Yet the image is arresting:  dark, light, loquacious.  Quietly unsettling.  Some people sit alone, some people in pairs.  The world beams romantic, the stars speaking in chorus.  Don’t forget how mellifluous the passing evenings are, the image seems to say.  A reminder that our daily lives are embedded in some greater mystery.  The night, cryptically beautiful.  The pavement, kinetic.  If he’d painted a fish in it, it wouldn’t have seemed quixotic. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

22 things i've learned from reading detective novels

poetry & mystery

From Nancy Drew to Sherlock Holmes, the detective as an archetypal character has always fascinated me.  Gently luminous...darkly glittering, the literary sleuth captivates my imagination.  Here is a list of 22 things I've learned from chasing detectives in detective novels:

1) Be curious
2) Ask skillful questions
3) Thinking through problems is an art
4) Expand the mind by reading, observing, and listening
5) Act with integrity
6) Patience has its rewards
7) When making decisions, balance reason with intuition
8) Make it a priority to pursue the truth
9) Cultivate an appreciation for mystery
10) Practice detachment
11) Develop a tolerance for the cold
12) Soft vices can be pleasurable and help define character
13) Think creatively
14) Solitude and loneliness are not the same thing
15) An understanding of human nature can come in handy
16) Maintaining self-control reflects maturity
17) Villains are worthy of compassion
18) Risk taking is sometimes necessary but prepare for it
19) Adopt a conservative dress code
20) Maintain a sense of awe
21) Be an observer
22) Make assumptions based on evidence

Saturday, October 26, 2013


poetry & mystery

Do you know that feeling of having had too much coffee?  Of waking up with an ache behind your earlobe, a craving for the number eight?  I can't explain things sometimes.  But I do know that in the friction of daily life, there are these candlestick moments.  Someone said to me today, "I like your dimples."  Someone else thought it appropriate to walk up to me and ruffle my hair.  I wanted a candlestick then, so I could whack it against a tree.  So I could use it as a baton while I walked to the coffee shop.  I think I know less now than I did five years ago.  But most days I forget I have these deformities, dimples.  I forget that I'm not just a girl waking up with this ache behind an earlobe.  I am all of the years I have spent on this planet, some fortunate and others hapless.  And like a matryoshka doll, I carry all the smaller selves inside me.  So when I said I wanted a candlestick, I really meant my inner sixteen year old wanted a candlestick.  I never know, when I step out into the world each day, what age I'll be.  Most days, I'd like to be the tallest one of the bunch, send the smaller selves on vacation.  Iceland, maybe.  Even Paraguay.       

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

389) tacky

poetry & mystery 


I don't suggest moving to Los Angeles.  The grocery stores are a culture shock.  If you stand in line at the express lane with more than ten items in your cart, most cashiers just ring you up.  They might sass you, west coast style, and allude to the beach.  But don't expect applause if you bite back with expertise.  Los Angeles is as random as a yellow dress on a stop sign, and even the sanest person is nuts.  Visitors deride the urban sprawl, take issue with its anti-walking stance.  And though I must confess I've driven my car from the living room to the bedroom, I have much common sense.  I know, for instance, that skateboarding is risky.  That wearing high heeled sneakers is not the most ped-alogical way to go.  So I can be trusted when I say, don't move to this city.  The paradoxes will un-verb you.  Tourists don't always see how luminescent the freeways are.  How the tacky sprawl of Ventura Boulevard is a metaphor for emptiness.  L.A. is neither the quintessence of public transportation nor a winner in the skyscraper parade.  But we have the Wife of Bling, the Producer.  I'm certain Chaucer would agree that The Los Angeles Tales would make a comic read, and to appreciate this pestiferous city, a sense of humor should take the lead.