Reading to strangers: part IV

sydney-harbour-bridge-1930A 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 the past two years was participate in public poetry readings. Part four of five tells of some experiences that influenced me and the poetry I read and write.

So now comes the rest of the telling of how I came to write poetry and read to strangers in public.

Poetry occupies three sides in my life. There is the side of my life where reading and writing poetry happens. There is also the shadow side where there is little or no sharing, save with close friends and a few relatives. Then there is the sharing in public to strangers.

I’ve tried to show in this five part series some of the influences on my life that have made me who I am and how I feel and how I relate to poetry.

Seeing this is a short version of a longer telling I must say that there is a difference between having life changing experiences and living by those changes. And there is the importance of a mentor. In college I had two but after that none and so I let life get in the way of reading and writing poetry. I had no one to point out that poetry was my first real love and loves cannot be set aside though they can be ignored. I went on reading and scribbling when I had a quiet moment but never set aside blocks of  time to sit and make writing happen. This is what happens when you do not have money or think about  the little money you do have which is not enough to afford the time you need to write. This is the struggle everyone knows.

A person is like a country with ambassadors and advisers and neighbors and competing interests. A poet is a bridge builder with words. The bridge is never quite complete and need not be because our words take the reader the rest of the way. We are incomplete beings but our words suggest continual revision — this is a picture of a life.

When I would lounge and lull to write there was the intruding thought and the drum of distraction like some war machine on the horizon. In a low thunder it would murmur You’re not doing enough. Of course in time you understand you can never do enough and most often do too much and end up not writing at all. Some people know this sooner than others. It took me a while because that army over the hill was quite a threat. Everyone who works and does have an interest in writing seldom understand the idleness necessary for writing. They think a person who sits for a day or a week or months on end must be a looking for a free lunch when really they are not. What they are doing is making a way for writing to come and come and come until you are good at it and there is so much of it you can sell it and buy everyone lunch and dinner and even breakfast if you want. This is a way of sharing too but it must come after a lot of sitting and seeing the words come out and knowing what sparks are created when words commingle. Not journalism mind you but poetry and art and writing that results in a sea change. Emily Dickinson said I dwell in Possibility. That’s what writers do. We see what is possible. Most Americans understand this with material things but not with words. Some do but they are far and few.

Anyway America is a free country until you do not do what everyone else does. When you take the time to write everyone tries their best to change you or ignore you or chide you like a school boy bully. They do not want you to live in your own self completely as you must to write. In this way America is communistic and violent. No one can stand apart. No one would ever say this but if you ever are different than the rest you will come to know all the others do not like it except the people who like to share what it means to be different. America is learning yet not quite there yet letting people be transparent and leaving people alone inside themselves where they can live and share what it means to be alive.

To be alive means you can read before a room full of strangers. Once this was impossible. Now it is quite exceptional if you think about how long it took and how far someone has to travel before you see strangers as fellow travelers. Others are strangers only when there are no words between them. There must be words between people not competing in order to be sharing and poetry. Debates are arguments over an already dead carcass. Debates are word competitions to see winners and losers. This is a terrible way to pick a president or educate the young. Leaders who strive to win will create a world in which most people are losers. This is the world we have now. This is why poetry is so important. It shows another way.

In January I read on William Stafford’s Birthday at the Hugi-Lewis Gallery in Anchorage. Four others read too. There were a few who watched but did not read. Two shared anecdotes from William Stafford’s life. Two of us also shared poems of our own and another shared a letter Stafford wrote to her. A rich and sweet letter. He shared what share-able writing was like and how you practice your writing everyday.  Stafford said many times you must be as true as you can be to whatever is coming up from yourself and then the writing of worth has a chance to live and breath in the world. The letter showed Stafford’g genius and his love of helping other writers. Jim Hanlen a sweet man hosted the event. We talked before the event which was like talking to a brother you did not know you had. Lovely men like him are so rare. They are national treasures. I think there should be statues in every town square of a lovely man from the town’s past. This would be a reminder to little boys and young men of what men should aspire to be. Gentleness. Winsomeness. And truthfulness. All people aspire to this though it is easy to be distracted. There will always be enough people willing to be violent and busy and foolish. There is no need to encourage them. Those willing to work and live fully alive lives are the ones who change the world.

This then is how I came to share my words. I wrote in my day book the book that I write in every day.  Do you not think the words that come from you are the same unexplainable unfolding that stretched out the stars and galaxies? You must let them go so others may see new stars. Control is an abandoned well. Dry and lifeless. Jump from water falls, each droplet a star, an entire universe parting for you. 

I wrote other things like this and they always make the connection between the larger universe, the unfolding creator and the perceived smaller you which is in no way small and so much a part of everything. Your body is the universe to a cell. You are a cell to the universe. You have a task. You know you must open and close when you are ready.

Stars shine and cannot help sharing their light. We shine by sharing what we write. You can see the stars why can’t we see the stars that are ourselves and the stars that are everyone else. The answer is we decided and each has their reasons that what we have is not what others can value. Now it is true that many people do not listen. They are blunted or stunted or in such a hurry they cannot hear. This is not your concern as a poet or writer. From the very beginning you were made to make an offering. This is your destiny and from it comes forth the life that is in you. This is why anyone can and should read in public to strangers and after you read you will find friends. This is the end of the short telling of how I came to read to strangers in public.


“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.



In my senior year of high school I had burned myself out with school activities, sports, a job and dating. One day my mother noticed the dark shadows under my eyes and my lack of enthusiasm. A doctor visit resulted in a diagnosis of mononucleosis. I spent the subsequent two-week a hospital with tentacles of I.V.s, and a complete bed rest order. I learned a hard lesson from this. I tend not to take care of myself.

I remembered that stint in the hospital as I was thinking about budgeting my writing time. After some reflection, I decided to take a hiatus from 30-Day writing challenges for the rest of the year. I don’t have anything against challenges; I simply need more time to write.

To be more precise, I need more time to write less. Yeah, you heard me right; I need more time to write less. I’m a poet, after all.

I know this goes against the grain of many writing gurus. There are bucket loads of advice that push writers to generate more words by doing every possible writing activity. We are told to read more, create more and, of course, generate more media buzz about your work. To write faster we are told to either write madly by a stopwatch or write doggedly until a certain word count is reached. Well, I don’t believe any of this will lead to better poems. Underlying all this faster is better advice is the idea that a writer must do it all or it won’t happen. To me this is the old Faustian bargain. Sell your soul for a chance, just a chance — mind you, of publishing success.

When it comes to taking advice on writing or anything else, I tend to be the proverbial salmon swimming upstream. I tend to buck popular trends. I believe that what is most popular is usually the easy way out. I imagine all these quick little lemmings jumping from that cliff, happily following each other to conform to the cliff jumping trend.  I question, therefore I write.

I think most writers agree that good writing requires more than a draft or two. From initial motivation to finished product involves multiple steps and a seeming lifetime of fixing and fretting. I remarked on some exception to this in my previous post here. I also referred to the danger of writing becoming like fast food – tasteless and fat. If you’re one of those writers satisfied with the first draft as the finished product, one of two things has happened; you are unable or unwilling (because you don’t have time) to evaluate good writing or you are a certified writing savant, of which you can count yourself as among the precious few. In either case, read no more.

America poet, Lorine Niedecker ended a by saying, “What would they say if they knew/ I sit for two months/ on six lines of poetry?” (Find the poem here.) The stories of drafts of poems and novels taking decades to “get right” abound. I think the reason for this is not self-defeating obsession or a Calvinistic perfectionism.  It has everything to do with the next-to-impossible-task of producing vital and indispensable art. A writer knows that words are difficult animals to tame or seduce into revealing their secrets. We’re not after the obvious, the already-been-told-tale or the cliché. , we’re after the gold beneath the hard-packed overburden of our souls.

Though it isn’t typical of the poems I compose, I have worked on one long poem for more than six years. It’s a good poem but I know it has yet to reveal all that it is capable of becoming. So I keep pecking away at it in the hope that one day it will finish saying what must be said instead of what I think it should say. There is an important distinction here between ideal and revelation. I want the revelation. I want the words to show me the way not the other way around. I don’t care how long it takes. This is why I will take more time to write less.

See you next week.

Questions at the mirror

Sometimes it is valuable to just write and leave the editing to a minimum. This is the idea behind the words below. They were in response to a prompt from Kellie Elmore. Her blog, Magic in the Backyard, offers a writing prompt each Friday. The task was to look in the mirror and write what you see. 

Your eyes squint almost shut and your hair, what happened to your hair? And the smile, where is the smile? It looks rather forced. Is there a snake oil salesman in this house? Did I just wake up and met a stranger? Does age move so fast? Or was I simply forgetful? Maybe I did not believe in time? Maybe I denied reality or believed in immortality? And why did I not grow up here inside? Face and hands, why did you go on ahead without me? Why leave me standing on youth’s threshold while you traveled the deserts of the world where the moisture is taken from the skin and the dirt in the cracks on this face appear as if someone was trying to sculpt a new face from the old? Is this the way the world takes back this body we borrow?  Mirror, is this what you mean by showing me this stranger? Is this the way the body keeps us alive and shows us that we need to find a new home before it’s too late? Maybe I can live in these words forever.