To see the announcement for my poetry book, Sparrow, selected by poet Dorianne Laux for the Kenneth and Geraldine Gell Poetry Prize at Writers & Books, go to

You can find a review by Kathleen Kirk at EIL:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rumi: "The Guesthouse"

My friend Louise handed this to me yesterday. Not the first time this poem by Rumi has crossed my threshold.


This being human is a guesthouse,
every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably,
he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thoughts, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In His Eightieth Year

In His Eightieth Year

My father told me that, "Sure," they had running water
when he was a kid. His mother would hand one of her boys
a bucket and say, "Run down to the creek."

When the neighbor's wife ran away,
he hired my grandmother to do his washing
and with the money she bought a washing machine
with a gas engine. Dad said the engine
was like a lawnmower's, but his eyes got
that far away look in them,
as though he knew I wouldn't understand.

How much water did he and his brothers have to run for
to fill that thumping, smoking washer?

At eighty, where have his brothers gone,
and where, those strong legs
that could run back and forth to the creek all day?


image from

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

about reading

In the last few days I've read two books about reading, both of which I highly recommend: William Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, and Nina Sankovitch's Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading. Both authors combine their love of reading (Sankovitch read a book a day for a year) with personal memoir. I woke up this morning flooded with thoughts of momentous occasions in my life and what books I was reading at the time (Joyce Carol Oates's Them, Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter). I remembered two summers ago when I was so sick that I lay in bed and read all of War and Peace, unable to do anything else.

In a recent post and comment, my friend Beverly and I shared the feeling that writing = breath. For me, reading does the same. "Do you read when you're writing?" Yes. I can't in fact imagine a life without books, books, and more books.

What about you?

Monday, June 13, 2011

"to help write our own story"

"The problem of pain, of war and the horror of war, of poverty and disease is always confronting us. But a God who allows no pain, no grief, also allows no choice. There is little unfairness in a colony of ants, but there is also little freedom. We human beings have been given the terrible gift of free will, and htis ability to make choices, to help write our own story, is what makes us human, even when we make the wrong choices, abusing our freedom and the freedom of others." Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water, 20.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Why We Write

It is nearly the end of spring quarter, and of the 2010-2011 academic year. On Friday morning, a student from my research paper class stopped by and I went over his final project with him. We read a few paragraphs together. I pointed out some errors. I attempted to show him how a narrower frame for the essay could give it more focus, more oomph. He packed the paper back into his bookbag, stood up, then, hesitating at the door and looking at me with an expression of distress on his face, he said, "May I ask you a random question?" When I said of course, he said, "Why do we have to study writing in college?"

At first I wasn't certain what he meant. Did he mean that by the time they reach college, students have already mastered writing? That they shouldn't need any additional writing instruction?

Okay, so I think he was asking "Why are writing classes required?" But the reason he was asking wasn't that he already knew how to write--not at all. Rather, he didn't see why he needed to know how to write. He seemed to believe that the required writing credits for a transfer degree were as arbitrary as required piano or watercolor lessons. As an engineering student, he explained, he didn't need writing.

So I got out my soapbox, climbed on top of it, and made a little speech about the importance of writing, how writing makes us reflect, how engineers who can write are more valuable than engineers who can't write.

Another student showed up at my door, and so the first student left, looking unconvinced. I couldn't blame him; in fact, I was feeling pretty skeptical, too. Yes, it's the end of the quarter, I have about 200 student papers, quiz responses, and portfolios to grade between now and next Monday. It's as good a time as any to lose faith in the process.

Why do we write? Why do we teach writing? Why do we play the piano? Why did I get up this morning?

I write because the page listens to me when no one else does.

I write to find out what I really think, so (as Flannery O'Connor once wrote in a letter) I can "see what I say."

I write because I have to. I've been writing since I was a child, writing obsessively, filling notebooks, turning thoughts into poems and short stories and essays. I've never been obsessed with anything else (horses, boys, children, teaching, faith, my father's death) without turning it into writing.

I write because when I don't write I feel itchy and crazed, as though something -- something really important -- has gotten away from me.

I write because even if it weren't mandated by the school system, both K-12 and college, even if no one ever valued me one dollar more (like the engineer who can write), even if no one thinks writing matters but me--it matters to me.

For me, writing is as important as breath. If I were paralyzed in an accident, you'd recognize me by the pencil clenched between my teeth.

Writing, for me, lies at the heart of everything else.

Once in a while, I see this happen for a student, or even for my daughter, the one who says she can't write, who says that she hates writing. When the teacher of her Interpersonal class required her to write about a relationship from which she had learned something, she was completely stumped ("I've never learned anything from a relationship," she told me). "Why don't you write about Austin?" I said to her--her first great love, her first great heartbreak. She got this look on her face, that beatific look of someone with an epiphany. She retreated to another table (we were at the library), and, in half an hour she filled a half-dozen pages--single-spaced. "Wow," she told me after we got it typed up. "I didn't know how huge that was for me."

That's one of the things writing does for me. It makes me see how huge it all is.

I'm not sure I've said exactly what I meant to say when I opened this blog window, but I'll keep thinking about it. No doubt I'll write about it again. And I think I'll write a thank you letter to my daughter's teacher.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Reality Is Broken

I have to share this TED talk with Jane McGonigal, a game designer and author of
REALITY IS BROKEN: WHY GAMES MAKE US BETTER AND HOW THEY CAN CHANGE THE WORLD. Believe me, I would never have thought I would like this.

The Essential Rumi

"His poems have never been for me, or for most readers, museum curios from the thirteenth century. They are food and drink, nourishment for the part that is hungry for what they give. Call it soul." -Coleman Barks (Introduction, xv)

and Rumi himself:

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absentminded. Someone sober
will worry about things going badly.
Let the lover be.