Reading to strangers in public: part one of four

A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did was participate in a public poetry reading. This is the first of four parts of that story.


This is the beginning of the telling of how I came to read poetry to strangers. It is a telling of how I came one day to sit and another day to stand in front of strangers and for the first time read my own poetry. It was a long journey. This is the short version of that journey.

child painter

I suppose and can only guess that it began when I was a child. Children are naturally show boats. They create a drawing or write a poem and they want to share it. To this day whenever my daughter writes a song she has me read it or sings it to me. No delay. My son used to share his drawings too but now he only shares by talking. He loves to talk. This is now mostly how he shares. I am sure I did this too. I began sharing the things I made and eventually shared only talking and sometimes only a little talking at that.

My mother was a talker too. Whenever I visited her back in Michigan she would give me something I created that she hung on to all through the years. A blue plaster of Paris ashtray. A charcoal drawing of a house set in mountains with red windows and black windblown smoke from the chimney. A paper mache elephant. Even cards I wrote to her that meant the love she gave came back like a cute boomerang. This was important to her as it is important to all mothers. So it is natural to express ourselves in all kinds of ways. The question is why do we stop?

For a long time almost a lifetime I did not know at any time why I stopped. Now I see a little more into this. I did not cease to share entirely but essentially. Oh I gave Christmas gifts and birthday cards and these are fine things to do and a kind of sharing but not sharing of the vulnerable part inside us. This is why it was difficult to share with others . There was stage fright of course though not enough to stop me or most anyone. This is the natural fear of rejection anyone might have and get over. Yet the big freeze came because I also have a larger and looming and quite irrational fear of abandonment. This larger fear was constant and with me so long it seemed natural. Anything lived with long enough seems natural. Even something looming and not luminous. My father left my life when I was eleven. Just like that he was gone. He was not dead but gone just the same. As all boys at any age a boy of eleven is in great need of his father. I did not know at that time why my father left and my mother would not say. So there was not a lot of talking about that. I think this abandonment planted a rather large fear in me and may account for most of my unwillingness to share created things. It made all hope hard. If everything you admire and love can be taken away not just taken away but taken away for no reason then hope is hard to have and to do. Sharing then becomes too daring for someone like this.

It took decades before I could again share. I knew it is natural not seemingly natural and that sharing is caring and makes everyone who can share feel together and good. The feeling of this sharing stays with you a long time after too. Maybe always. Whenever you remember this sharing it is like running fingers over a scar long after a cut and smiling. You know the scar is still there but the pain whatever is left of it can no longer hurt or keep you from hope. Even though there is still some pain and some fear even today speaking in public I can speak to the fear and cause it to shrink away. This way I don’t stay forever locked up inside myself. Poems, mine and others, helped me see this. This is why poetry is so valuable to me and anyone if they discover it. Poems cut through pain with the clever living that transforms experience. Poems are scars that speak. People who love each other share the story of their scars. There is comfort and closeness in reading or singing poems together. Illumination too. And hope. All this and even more are present when people read poetry together. Even when they are strangers.


William Stafford’s poem “Scars” confirms the inevitability of wounds in life, and some ‘sorrows’ may be unreachable even by very fine church choirs. Find it here.



Sharing Poetry Is Caring

A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. My knee jerk response was sure, of course. It kept me off the streets at night. I really mean this. Among other things, it keeps me from becoming a television boob, or taking up residence at the corner watering hole. Personally, both reading and writing poetry keeps me mentally agile, inquisitive, and gives me a focal point from which to see the world.

What else? What positives came out of my poetry last year?. Publicly, I’ve informally shared poems. I’ll reflected on poetry and words in general on this blog, passed along a few works in progress on my poetry blog, Fresh Bean Sprouts, and sent poems out to other poets and friends. I have not yet submitted a poem in a literary journal, something I plan doing this year. Until now I’ve never felt the necessity to submit poems. I am protective of my fragile inner space. I tremble at the idea of while composing I would succumb to a nagging whisper of a thought that a line or stanza might be changed to a certain journal’s liking. For me the greater challenge is not publishing but writing well. If someone might one day think a poem of mine is publishable that would be a bonus.

The question remains how can I know if I created anything positive? I recall a few of the bright days with others. One example occurred a few weeks ago. I read a short poem to my wife and my son. I had written a epigrammatic poem about our Pekinese’s regal manner. My wife smiled, said, “That’s nice. I like it.” My 17-year-old son, who prides himself on picking apart any idea, took issue with the poem’s claim that our dog had “views.” While the poem’s first reviews were mixed, the reading did result in a discussion of loyalty, poetic conceit, and freedom, which I consider a victory. The positive here was that my little creation got others, who do not normally read poetry, into a closer reading. They were confronted with a new creation that by its nature set off thoughts and feelings they would not have had otherwise. In its own way, this was a positive poetic event.

I can think of other positives. I wrote a short poem to a poet friend on Facebook in response to an artistic photo she posted. I was intrigued by the photo and inspired. She was tickled I wrote it and I think it served as validation for her burgeoning artistic skill with the camera. I write short poems on postcards and send them out via the Postcrossing Project, such as this one.

Today these few words
celebrate you and I
in a kind, kind of, embrace
half a world away.

I count these and others as positive points on my poetry scoreboard.

I also think of other’s poetry that I pass along. I do this all the time, sending poems to friends, family and acquaintances. It always gets a response, usually gratitude that I made the connection. All of us are astonished when we read another’s words that capture our thoughts or emotions so well, or lead us to new ways of seeing the world.

Returning to the purely personal, I can recount another positive. Every time I discover I cannot add (or subtract) anything to one of my poems, I make a hard copy and place it in my ‘ready for submission’ book. I know that I have created something I cannot improve on. This may take days, weeks, month, even years, but I know that I have put into it everything that I am. This gives me a sense of accomplishment, of triumph. Even if the poem should never be published until many years from now, even if panned by future critics, or even savored by only a few, either way I’m positive I’ve done all I can.

You can find my Pekinese poem here.

Next post: reading poetry to strangers in public.

Some questions from ‘Writing On The Sun’

Fellow blogger and poet, J.lynn Sheridan, recently wondered if poets make goals.

I know she knows the answer is: Yes, yes we do. Even though we might, for the sake of our sanity, hold these goals loosely in our hands the same way we hold form loosely when composing poetry, so that both serve, and neither one turns us into their slaves. We don’t want an established form or a niggling question to restrict us when the creative juices pour onto the page. (More on juicing and revision in future posts.)

I’m delighted J.lynn has provoked me and her readers into thinking about the ways we challenge and develop our art. (You can find her blog, and questions, here.) She made an extensive list of basic questions that challenge us. Any question is food for the hungry dogs of poetry but the self made poet sometimes rejects them as unbefitting a “poets” life. Yet, if the cocksure poet sitting at a trendy cafe, sipping latte, can remove their tilted cap and don something other than black turtlenecks, they may have a chance to use such questions as a way to prod and cajole themselves toward generating interesting and significant art. Assuming you are not a vegetable, several of these questions should spur you on to more thoughtfulness in our writing life. Thank you J.lynn for bringing some tough love from your bright sun.

Java Monkey cafe in Atlanta

Scanning J.lynn’s questions I realized three things right away. One, that considering any one of these could burn up a fair amount wood inside my cranium, and two, I could use a reality check, and three, the questions could be used as prompts for blog posts. Seeing that I neglected my blog for nearly a year now, I decided to burn a few sticks of woody thought on, say, one of her questions each month. It would be a fine way of inquiring, expressing, and sharing the current shape of my writing life.

Next post: Can anything good come from looking in the rear view mirror?

Lightering Words

I made a notation on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary today under the “lighter” entry. I’ve liked this word ever since I first heard it working on the Alaskan coastal waters 20 years ago. Previously, I thought a lighter was kept in your pocket and was brought out to light a cigarette or start a fire to keep from freezing. Imagine that, it had another meaning, a meaning I was unaware of the first three decades of my life.


I used to pull 36-hour shifts for a barge company monitoring fuel transfers to and from barges on St. Michael Island on the Bering Sea. It was long, cold and anxious work. In a severe sleep-deprived state, you had to stay vigilant so as not to over fill and spill fuel oil, gasoline or highly volatile aviation fuel. If you fell asleep the other guys on the crew would tie your shoe laces to one another or do some other practical joke like scream fire!

Anyway, the managers at the time called moving the “product” from a super tanker 8 miles off shore by barge to the tank farm as “lightering.” The workers called this hell (sleeplessness, diesel fumes, ocean swells and the damp air black with mosquitoes) but it paid well. The word is forever seared into my memory, along with the amber light of the low hanging subarctic sun, and the a red bore tide — a wave of red seaweed advancing through the water like an alien invasion or earthly miracle, depending on your state of mind.

The word lighter came into English by way of the Dutch lichter or lichten meaning to unload.  The dictionary says the noun can refer to a large, flat- bottomed barge. (Our barges held 250,000 gallons fully loaded, leaving but a couple feet of freeboard.) The word is also a verb meaning to convey something by barge. I don’t know how the meaning of lighting cigarettes got mixed up with loading freight, an incendiary idea, but stranger things have happened in English etymology. 

The idea of conveyance is pretty much how lightering was used on the Western Alaskan coast. As I noted in the comment section of Merriam-Webster, we might say, “We’re going to lighter the fuel.” The word lighterage meant the loading, unloading, and the transport of cargo by barge. Each sense of the word logged some nautical miles in our speech.

What’s all this got to do with poetry. Well, I’m glad you let me ask this rhetorical question. All words with multiple meanings make good poetic fodder. If I say Yeats lightered words I mean he transported words into your soul and then out again into the world when you shared them. I’m also saying he unloaded his words into this great barge of the world and to this day we are still lightening them around.

Good poems are chocked full of words pregnant with meaning. Here is an example I just made up for the occasion.

The fly was loose in the room so I nonchalantly scrambled to shun the thing
before the buzzing guests knew what was loosed upon them. 

So what kind of fly was loose –a zipper, an insect, something else or all three? A poet will never tell. The verb might give an indication or perhaps not depending on where the rest of the poem might take the reader. Poet’s might be reluctant to tell for another reason. They may not want to dampen the chance the poem will lighter the reader to other destinations.

Ambigious word play can be fun, even profitable, but taken to extremes can be a bore and bore hole in a poem large enough to sink it. Even straight forward words, whose meaning is relatively fixed, can influence a poem’s meaning if played at just the right time. Poetry seduces, it says the right word at the right time, to surprise and delight with unexpected associations. Theodore Roethke uses one word to great effect in the first stanza of My Papa’s Waltz.

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

He “hung on like death.” Death seems out of place here. The poems opening seems to be about an intoxicated father and his son at horseplay. As we move our eyes through the third line our mind makes ready to hear “heck” or “hell.” Heck, this is the word we Michigan boys used a lot in the post World War II — Vietnam War era.  ‘I hung on like heck.’ Or. ‘I hung on like hell.’ Heck is a word I used instead of hell, a word I spoke in my grandmother’s house once and for which she washed my mouth out with soap. Roethke slipped in death to avoid the obvious and expected hell or heck, which echos the rhyme of the first line. This particular use causes us to breathe and hesitate, just a moment, before moving on. He’s controlling not only meaning here but motion and cadence. He is also creating depth or mass. Death is as close as one’s breath. The father’s breath could “make a small boy dizzy” and a single word could easily set off a drunk father to violence. We are close to death by breath and word. Donald Hall, American poet and critic, said poems are more like sculptures than paintings. He was critical of poems that loitered on the surface image — the photograph poem, the poem that forgets to breathe. Good poems have volume, depth and mass, created by the tension between the surface images, formal and informal diction, the cadence, and the artful use of line breaks, to name a few tools in the poet’s bag of tricks.

As we read these first lines we get time to squirrel away this word play in our brains while we dance through the rest of the poem. I won’t spoil the remainder of the poem for you, but I wanted to suggest that what poets do is more akin to lightering words around to give shape and substance to what is normally empty experience. We are all creatures of movement. Words, like our bodies, are busy moving from one place to another and we have our becoming in each moment of movement. Stop moving and you are dead or soon will be, like so many retired people who quickly decline.

I am bi-vocational (that should be a category on a census form) like the vast majority of poets. Currently, my government job title is Engineering Equipment Operator, which means I smartly operate dumb heavy equipment — god-sized  excavators and bulldozers. I’m also a poet and find myself at odds when filling out online profiles where occupation is the question. The first thing I write is Engineering Equipment Operator, (that’s where the money is and the government job title sounds so impressive), then a slash is made before turning to my other chosen vocation, poet.

The only problem is the term poet is rather a cliché and needs a makeover too, so recently I wrote, Word Lighterage Engineer. I figure this phrase will give some pause to the reader and hopefully cause them to pause and consider the word and why its there. Then they can decide if I am a certifiable eccentric or completely bonkers. Either way, they will find Word Lighterage Engineer a play on words. If sufficiently curious, they will discover this word has more than a few meanings when applied to a poet.

A poet moves words around and, at their best, offers a way out of predictable thinking. You could say, I enjoy swilling the milk of moonlight, surely the preferred intoxicant of poetry lovers everywhere. 

Word play anyone? Leave a note in the comments.

“SELFIE” MAKES THE OED: rambling thoughts on self-portraits

Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary has given recognition to a word used in our family for years now. The OED’s online version made “selfie” its Word of the Year for 2013.

Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide took this selfie from space in 2013

Well, it’s about time. Selfies have circled the world a billion times in this past decade. In the information age that’s close to ancient news. The popular word for mobile phone camera self-portraits was introduced years ago to this troglodyte by his teenage daughter who is a selfie aficionado.

I love that the OED is keeping up with words born of the Internet. It is my go-to dictionary when I really what to get the goods on a word.  Each entry is extensive, including the first recorded occurrence of the word and subsequent examples of how the usage changed over time. That’s a boon for any word nerd.

Though the word selfie is fairly new as far as language goes, the camera self-portrait is as old as the portable camera. Following the invention of the Kodak Brownie box camera in 1900, people have snapped photos of themselves in every conceivable pose. An English Edwardian lady and Russian Duchesses are seen in this Wikipedia article. I can even remember one of my aunts with a Poloroid Instamatic camera shooting photos of herself and laughing hysterically. She had a wonderful sense of humor and drama. She was always fun to be with because she laughed all the time and didn’t take herself too seriously. Had she lived into the cell phone era I think she would have produced great selfies.

The Grand Duchess of Russia, Anastasia Nikolaevna, is shown here taking perhaps the first teenage selfie using a mirror and a Kodak Brownie camera.

OED tracked the first use of the word selfie to an Australian online forum in 2002 . A man described his drunken fall and picture of subsequent dental injuries. “Um, drunk at a mate’s 21st. I tripped ofer (sic) and landed lip first …on  a set of steps…sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”  In 2004 the word appeared as a hashtag on Flickr. In 2005, Photographer Jim Krause used the word in his book, Photo Idea Index. The word became widespread in the mainstream media by 2012. According to an OED infographic, selfie won the competition by growing in usage 17,000 percent this year alone.

Selfie beat out “twerk,” the word referring to the attention grabbing fad of gyrating like mating dogs in public. The term’s familiarity shot up after being made infamous this year by the young entertainer Miley Cyrus. Shirking and deliberately stripping off her sweet 16 teen image, Cyrus has done her part, as so many pop diva’s do, to dumb down the love-making dance symbols of western culture. She’s got nothing on the Tango.

The popular word selfie was introduced years ago to this troglodyte by my teenage daughter. I call her the Selfie Master, though she is typical among her peers who create selfies at the drop of a hat. There are workout selfies or “welfie,”  hair selfie or “helfie” and shelf, sweater and shirt all getting the moniker of shelfie. Her cell and mine are populated with hundreds of these selfies. They are expressions of ongoing exploration of her emotional life: sadness, elation, depression, delight, anger and humor, anxiety and seduction. Some are sent out in texts, others are archived as the stock photos ever ready to help illustrate a future mood. I wouldn’t delete any of these images because they are much like a child’s early drawings and school crafts that reveal snapshots of her developing self-image.

My daughter's bathroom selfie from a few years ago. It's all about exploring a pose.

My daughter’s bathroom selfie from a few years ago. It’s all about exploring a pose.

The selfie is a variation of artists’ self portraits. Who can forget Warhol’s blank face in various colors or the dozens of haunting Van Gogh mugs. Today every person under 30 is a photo artist with enough self portraits to fill a couple dozen photo albums, (though few keep hard copy photos any more). I wonder how many digital selfies the world’s web hubs and computers can store?

Despite the name, seflies are not only about the self. There are social selfies that show our life in social realm. I’ve made a few family selfies. Here’s one with my family on a day hike.


A selfie of my family on a day hike in the foothills of the Alaska Range near Healy, Alaska

To me selfies are more fun when you are in a group. The spontaneous dynamics of three or more people seem to always be captured by the camera lens, even when the lighting is dim and the hamming meter is way off the charts.



The word rantics is a merging of rants and antics. I call these compressed words. They would be compound words if each word survives the merger. In this case, the words combine like human x and y chromosomes. What emerges is not a carbon copy of the parents but a word with similar characteristics. 

Telling someone off

The idea of combining the two words came to me the other day. I was channel surfing television news (a futile endeavor, I know) and stopped for a moment on two channels: Fox News and MSNBC. The two channels are miles apart ideologically but closer to each other rhetorically than a pair of star-crossed lovers.

On Fox there was the irrepressible Greg Gutfeld‘s satirical antics. He was jabbering away on the border of libertarian disgust. On MSNBC was Rachael Maddow in the midst of a venomous liberal tirade worthy of an undead schoolmarm. Both were so entrenched in their rhetoric they left their topic spinning meaninglessly in the dust. God help us all.

I think I’ll stick to poetry and literature in general for all my timeless and relevant news. 

In honor of my late grandmother, who invented many lively words, I christen the word “rantics.” I define it as ‘a feverish debate dependent on dramatic diatribes and lacking common sense.’  I could also add that demonstrative body and facial expressions are also evident. The word is new and flexible enough to be applied to politicos anywhere on the spectrum who take their arguments too seriously and will stoop to any level, even that of a childish taunt, to deliver ‘all the news that’s not fit to listen to.’

Not So Original

Rantics is new enough not to be in my spell checker. I did find the singular form when I Googled it. Appearing at the top of a long list of obscure sources and names, the word showed up in the Urban Rantic had three definitions: 1) strong and rebellious attitude, 2) hyperbole, gross exaggeration, even hypocrisy, used when (emotively (sic)) expressing extremist religious and/or political views, and 3) a very small penis.

Definition number two seems to fit best with my use of the word. UD even cited Glenn Beck as an example. I could think of liberal examples, including the aforementioned, but the Urban Dictionary seems shy of naming its own. Number three I’ll take with one very small grain of salt.

Are you ever rantic? What gets your rantics on?


Garage sale heaven

Fall is the season to ply the avenues for garage sale books in Fairbanks, Alaska. Though sold all summer, books seem to occupy a higher ratio of items offered in the fall. I don’t know why this is so but I suspect the book worms are busy reading outdoors under the long days of the Midnight Sun. With 22 hours of daylight, plus two hours of readable dusk, what serious book reader would mount a full scale, time sucking, garage sale?


Probably only those forced to move

Throughout the summer a high turnover population of military and seasonal work forces, make the Golden Heart City a target rich environment for clothes and bulky garage sale items. On any summer weekend in Fairbanks, a working town and jumping off point for bush Alaska, there are 30-50 garage and moving sales. The clothes the kids outgrew, the vintage sewing machine, the worn love seat, and the engine block collecting bird dodo for half a decade are brushed off, carried and rolled into place on lawns and driveways. Traffic jams at garage sales are the norm. 

When the good books come out

Yet, as the days shorten and the air cools, the folks of Fairbanks know this is the last chance to clear that overstuffed book case of tattered paperbacks and unread classic tomes. In the fall, it’s the small items, like dishes and table wear and books, that tend to go on sale. They are easier to set out and can be gathered up easier under fickle weather.

My garage sailing book bounty

Last Saturday was a good garage sale day. S. and I left on our bikes in a slight drizzle. Just down the street was our first sale. Our elderly neighbor was selling out. A hand written sign at the curb read, “MUST GO — 30 years of accumulated stuff.” There’s nothing like a must go sign. It usually means the owners are ready to deal and bargains are to be had.

Their items were set out on folding tables under two square, white canopies. There was little that interested us but lining one side of the garage were six large boxes of books. “Yes,” I whispered quietly. I began to rifle through them and immediately found a treasure: Coleman McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses, the first book in his Border Trilogy. The book was a National Book Award winner. I read McCarthy’s End Of The Road last year and wanted to read something else by him. It was a clean, large paperback edition, so I snagged it.

Then I spotted a book I’ve wanted in my library for some time. Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics, a hardback book on the corrosive political debates between the right and left. The jacket blurb reads, “Why the right gets it wrong and the left doesn’t get it.” Wallis has led the fight to bring more light and less heat to the debate dividing not only Christians but the all Americans.

As I went through the last box, a book with a dark brown cover caught my eye. It was a find, A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It was old but in excellent shape. The copyright page gave the publication date of 1911. It wasn’t a first edition but it might be the first edition published in America. This book will go in my classics shelf next to my great grandfather’s first edition Huckleberry Finn and a hand full of other classics. We paid a total of three dollars and fifty cents, an unbelievable deal, and set off to our next sale.

We visited three other sales in quick succession not finding anything we were interested in. In fact, at a couple of the sales it was obvious some folks were selling sketchy items: yard rakes with missing tines and shovels with dry rotted handles. Some were repairable but some were total junk and not worthy of sale. We moved on to better gleanings.

Last stop and score

Our luck changed when we visited our last stop, a neighbor’s sale a few doors down from our house. The daughter and her boyfriend were moving to Maine and needed to get rid of a lot — I suspect whatever couldn’t fit in their small car. At the entrance to the garage S. spotted a sturdy coffee table with a few dings. It was stout enough to hold our 50 gallon fish tank. We have a koi and four gold-fish that we bring indoors for the winter and we needed a strong table to hold the tank. They wanted 50 dollars for the table. I talked them down to 25 and arranged to return with the car to pick it up.

Before leaving I found a table full of obsolete VHS tapes. I wasn’t interested in the tapes so much as seeing what movies these nomadic neighbors liked to watch. As I turned them over I found a hardback copy of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, all 676 pages of it for a dollar. I had read a few chapters of this book a couple of summers ago while on vacation and thought at the time I’d come back to it sometime. Here it came back to me.


Before you sample a garage sale this weekend, click over to my sample poem at Fresh Bean Sprouts.