Spine poetry

How great is this idea? Select a few books from your shelf  and shuffle them up to “write” a poem. The idea, courtesy of artist Nina Kathadourian’s Sorted Books project I read about on Brain Pickings, is called spine poetry. Brilliant, right? Peruse your bookshelf—or as this artist does: the public library, private libraries, anywhere that houses books—culling those with interesting titles to arrange a poem.

Such an interesting way to discover lines of poetry that might never be discovered otherwise, while possibly even motivating you to dust the bookshelf; it’s also time well spent with your books and even better: a reason to acquire more books.

Here are some lines I discovered:

Love is walking hand in hand,

devotion.

Enduring love:

the mother garden.

Man and camel

walking into the night;

don’t tell me the truth about love.

Happiness is a warm puppy,

driving over lemons,

the northern lights,

burnt bread and chutney,

the journey home.

Poetry is so . . . poetic

Roses are red
Violets are blue;
This poem is short
and so are you.
 

This original poem, my most creative I think, won best amateur poem in the Mass Poetry’s Festival’s newcomer category, which is not a real contest, but should be. I’d have it in the bag.

In reality, the festival breezed into Salem, set up its circus tents of inspiration all over town: workshop after workshop of scribbling poets and readings to recharge writers for months. So much to feast on. So much to plagiarize.

On Friday afternoon, the back yard of the Salem Athenaeum was one giant cliché: a circle of writers sitting under a tree in full blossom, creating poems amongst bird song, sunshine, and wind chimes. Saturday brought more sunshine and poets who could dash off a masterpiece in minutes. On Sunday, carpenter poets read their work, full of hammers and miter saws, in a dark room in the House of the Seven Gables where gables centuries old beamed to see their craftsmen. The day also brought rain, the kind of weather angsty writers need to cultivate a mood and to get down to the business of writing and brooding.

Writing retreat

The good thing about being a writer is that you can be creative and imaginative, crafting any essay or story you want. You get to wear funky clothing and colorful scarves and keep odd hours. You can write in your bathrobe. Occasionally, you write a stellar sentence or sell a piece of writing and other people actually read it.

The downside is the that you’re on your own. No one insists that you work 9-5 or that you finish that poem by 3 p.m. on Tuesday. No one asks you to submit that humorous piece you’re working on because it would be so perfect for their magazine.

So, when my travel writer friend said her writing commitment needed a kick in the pants, I thought, Right. I should rediscover my serious writing persona, and investigated the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. The weeklong writing workshops are costly, so I debated and debated. Great teachers, an amazing location, a community serious about writing . . . But I wanted to go on vacation this summer. And save money. But then I thought about all the half-started ideas that cover my desk that never seem to get written. And I heard novelist Elizabeth Strout mention that she finished Olive Kitteridge while holed up in a cottage in Provincetown. See, writers are required to work in a beach cottage in the dunes of Provincetown at one point or another. It’s in the writer’s credo. And so I signed myself up for a nonfiction class and rented myself a little cottage where I will have a combined writing retreat/vacation from which amazing essays will sprout—or where I’ll at least hang out at the beach and pretend to write.

Elizabeth Strout and Billy Collins

Last week was a literary smorgasbord, which is the best kind of smorgasbord short of cornucopias of food. If not food, then books, I say. Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge, was in town doing a reading preceded by an intimate, entertaining Q & A. You don’t meet a lot of writers who used to study law while secretly reading Nabokov concealed in a textbook. You also don’t meet a lot of writers who know small towns and can write about them so effectively despite living in New York City. And you definitely don’t meet a lot of writers who, when answering a question, say, “I don’t know. But that’s not an interesting answer, is it? Let me make something up.”

Strout was chatty and affable and talked in depth about Olive Kitteridge, the ornery main character and the linked stories that revolve around her. It was like having a book club with the author.

I love to hear writers talk about their writing schedule and discipline and while Strout didn’t lay on the guilt trip I sometimes need to hear (as in, I rise at 5 a.m. and write until noon, eat some nuts, and then write for another 17 hours), she did say, “Writing is serious stuff” and that it should be treated with gravitas. Yes, approaching one’s writing half-heartedly rarely earns one a Pulitzer, which she was too humble to say, and that reminder is a good one. She also writes anywhere—the kitchen table, the subway, the library—and is constantly revising, quite a trick for a writer who writes by hand.

That same night, I caught poet Billy Collins at the MFA reading some new poems and some old favorites. He’s always delightful to listen to. One minute he’s stabbing you in the heart with a sad poem and then he’s making you laugh like a school girl. When he does both, he’s at his best. He said he likes to write poems that start funny and get serious or poems that start serious and get funny—a brilliant concept and one I wish I had employed in this post. Pretend it happened.

Food memoirs

I love reading a good memoir—digging in to people’s lives for inspiration and humor—and I love reading about food. Ergo, I love reading food memoirs. I’m reading two now, however, that I’ve had to quit. I won’t name them, because that feels mean, but the stories and writing are so conventional that they offer nothing new. One is a chronicle of some cooking classes that I thought would reveal the inside scoop on life as a chef-in-training, and I suppose it does, but, huh, it turns out to be just how I imagined it. The other focuses way, way too much on family background and entails a cast of characters that I had trouble distinguishing between; the food was a distant afterthought. 

What bothers me most, I suppose, is that if these books got published, I, too, could write a food memoir. The difference though, is that I know my story would lack drama—no stories of me eating urchins off the coast of Fiji, no fires or screaming matches in a hot kitchen—so, I wouldn’t subject anyone to it.

Of course, I do bear part of the responsibility in that I was wooed by the books’ covers, pretty photographs that drew me to them in a sweet little bookshop in Maine. The rest though, is on the writers.

Start a blog. Check!

Last year, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to jump start my writing by starting a blog. My computery technical skills were low and my frustration level high, but I recalled the time I thought I’d never transition from a journal to a word processor, so I soldiered on. I spent weeks mulling the content. Really, what was I gonna write about? I felt pressured to find the right title and just the right banner photo to reflect the feeling I wanted to project. I labored over what my first posts would be. Then I realized that I was doing what I always did when I sat down to write: procrastinating.

Oh, I love procrastinating. Not in general, so much, but when it comes to writing—oh, is procrastinating attractive. It used to be that I’d sit down in front of the typewriter (I started young), and I’d do a little test typing, hunting and pecking back then, to get in the groove. My desk would have to be just so. I’d eke out a sentence painfully, slowly, trying to get the sentence just right lest I have to employ the dreaded backspace and archaic correction ribbon.

 

Write. Now.

Write. Now.

 

When I wrote longhand, my pencils had to be lined up and sharpened, crisp white paper at the ready. Desk dusted. You know how it is.

One year later: mission accomplished. I’m approaching my 200th post, and while the time isn’t always there, the urge to write is still strong. I like this medium, especially the format that encourages short bursts of writing. No novels here. And I love that friends and strangers drop in to read these musings; I enjoy reading every comment they post.

I never thought I’d give up my typewriter or my pen and paper; I couldn’t imagine writing on a computer way back in the 90s; yet, here I am, blogging and discovering that each tool offers something new to a writer, including thoroughly modern ways to procrastinate.

Good prose

I read novels written in a variety of prose styles, spare like Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, simple yet indefinably beautiful like Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories, or rich and complex like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes I think it would be a fun exercise to rewrite say, a Bronte novel, in the style of James Patterson. A totally fruitless exercise, but an interesting one nonetheless.

Mostly though, I long for poetic prose where the writer has taken care with the language, as if each page were a poem. I’m reading Eve Green right now by British author Susan Fletcher and she offers up some beautiful lines, packing them with generous details. Of one character she writes, “She wore a dark-red knitted cardigan with buttons that looked like boiled sweets, and she smelt of washing machines.” A couple of perfect details and I already like the character. 

She describes her main character while still in the womb—a feat. “I’d been brought to Birmingham before I was born, before my mother knew if I was going to be a boy or a girl. She said she’d sit in the bath and watch my elbows poke up under her belly like chicken wings. We didn’t live near the chocolate factory, but sometimes I was sure I could smell the cocoa beans and cream.” The visual is memorable and the aroma of chocolate a sweet sensory detail.

If I had to pick, I’d say I care less about the plot and more about the elegance of the writing. Today’s literary market is flooded with plot-driven novels, which have their place for entertainment, but a more enjoyable read satisfies by achieving both a good plot and beautiful writing.

book-with-rock

The Hodgman

John Hodgman is a sexy brainiac. I say this because when I saw him last night at a reading for his new book, he 1) used the word panopticon, a great word that’s underutilized and 2) because he said when he Googled himself, he found he’s been described as pudgy, stout, round. Who wants that? Try dapper, trim, and tuxedoed, bloggers. Just doing my part to improve your cyber status, John.

Hodgman, a correspondent for The Daily Show and the guy who plays the PC in the Mac commercials, was pitching his book More Information Than You Require at Brookline Booksmith where he bantered with his guitar-wielding friend, singer Jonathan Coulton, and read a piece about the surreal experience of overnight fame. Good stuff. 

Watching this unconventional reading made me realize what a golden multimedia age we live in when you can write a magazine article or a book (cool enough, really) and parlay that into a humorous gig on a TV show, land a commercial, and become an icon overnight, if you’re funny, that is. For humor writers these days, the opportunities are dreamy and diverse—you can start a blog (like Hodgman’s packed-with-good bits site), post videos and hope they go viral, or pen stories for good old-fashioned magazines or the radio that magically turn into podcasts. Of course, if you’re a typical introverted writer the thought of being discovered by the media—mediafied, if you will—is terrifying. Better to strive to be a sexy brainiac with a low profile.

 

The Hodgman

The Hodgman

Albee and Lahiri on writing

When Charlie Rose interviewed playwright Edward Albee this week, he asked him if the first thing mentioned in his obituary would be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sure, but it doesn’t mean it’s my best work, Albee said. Rose asked, What’s your best, then? “I don’t know,” Albee said matter-of-factly. “I haven’t written it yet.” Wouldn’t it be awful, he elaborated, to think that you’ve already written your best work?

Well, yeah.

Sure, as a writer, you can have your favorite novel or poem that you’ve penned, but the idea that you haven’t yet written your best is the greatest motivator to keep at the craft. With constant focus and practice, your writing can only get better. Well, I suppose it could get worse, but you’d have to be trying hard to fail, which would be sad.

Later in the same show, Rose interviewed novelist Jhumpa Lahiri who, in her softspoken, careful way, described how her writing comes largely from her role as observer. She was thoughtful and deliberate in her answers, and the long pauses before she spoke reminded me of William Safire’s On Language column in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. In this age of prepped talking heads with their talking points, he said, you rarely see anyone on television think anymore. Rose interpreted her pauses as discomfort, though Lahiri assured him that she enjoyed talking with him. “She’s thinking!” I yelled.

As a writer who won’t be invited to Rose’s table anytime soon, I couldn’t help but think how long it would take me to articulate an answer to one of his questions, like the one along the lines of “If it’s true your life informs your writing, does your writing also inform your life?” I’d need 10 minutes and some paper. Writers, after all, care about words; we’re afforded the luxury of thinking and planning what we write; but as a lot, we’re not the best public speakers. If you can embrace the pauses and wait us out though, we just might string together a nice sentence or two.