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:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Indian Plum

As we drove home from church yesterday, I stopped the car so that Emma (my 12-year-old daughter) could see the Indian Plum blooming in the woodlands. My family calls this "sarvis," and I had to grow up, go to college, and meet a botanist (in poetry class!) to figure out what it really is (also called Osoberry, Latin name, oemlaria cerasiformis). I'm told it has small, bitter fruit that one can make into jelly, but the plant always seems to disappear into more interesting foliage once spring arrives.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rising to the Surface

I am writing letters to my students about their long papers -- their personal stories. In every letter, I write some version of this advice: Here is what seems to be the underlying meaning of your story; your job is to bring this meaning to the surface so that your readers can see it.

What I've learned from paying close attention to my students' stories is that abstract and generalized language and obscure sentence structures keep their meaning hidden. Not that it has no meaning, but it's as though I have to intuit it, to guess at it, when I should be able to understand it clearly, simply. What brings meaning to the surface of the story? Details and dialogue and sentencing that aim the reader's attention like a telescope at what matters most.

Life conspires to focus my own attention on this lesson. This morning, writing and reading in my green chair while the rest of my family slept, I came across this quote, highlighted from a previous reading of Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are: 

"Nisargadatta: By being with yourself . . . by watching yourself in your daily life with alert interest, with the intention to understand rather than to judge, in full acceptance of whatever may emerge, because it is there, you encourage the deep to come to the surface and enrich your life and consciousness with its captive energies." (10)

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Inimitable Naomi Shihab Nye

"Sometimes I pretend I'm not me, I just work for me."

I believe this line is also in a poem, but Naomi said it (with a mischievous twinkle of the eye) at a reading I attended last year. This is what I need to do right now, with a hundred items on my to-do list, send myself out as an emissary, an employee. On Sunday afternoon I'll catch my breath, and call a quick meeting with myself to see how I've done.

And here's Naomi Shihab Nye so you can see for yourself what a treasure she is:

Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Art is made through a series of moments--choices--leading each to the next. Life is made the same way. When we desire to live artfully, we must live not only consciously but concretely. We must shape our life." -Julia Cameron

I believe I've shared this quotation before, but it's one I keep returning to. My husband and one of my daughters have been ill, the poetry prize has spun my head, I have two sets of papers to grade, and a fundraiser at church this weekend. But it's five a.m. Right now, I can sit here and write.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Procrastination Blues

I spent the afternoon working on a couple of submissions, only to realize that, with the main one -- of my novel to PNWA -- the contest doesn't have a postmark deadline; it has a "received by" deadline. Tomorrow. And it's already 4:30. Dang.

My students often tell me that they work better under pressure. This quarter a student said that the only A grades she's ever received for a paper came when she left it until the last moment. Fair enough, I've grabbed that brass ring a few times, too. But I find more often that my procrastination habits do not result in better work. In my life, procrastination results in missed deadlines. It results in days drinking too much coffee, in headaches, in an intolerable level of anxiety. In a flood of disappointment.

In Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark recommends turning procrastination into rehearsal. I translate this for my students by 1) looking at the assignment very closely, closely enough to digest it, as soon as it's handed out (this would have been enough for me to have completed my submission on time); 2) breaking the task into very small steps, some of which (one sees immediately) are best taken care of right away (buying envelopes? typing the damn synopsis?); and, 3) for especially big or important projects, setting a goal to do something -- no matter how small -- every day (just opening up the project and looking at it can be enough to keep it from turning into a messy pile of compost).

Another step is to plan a reward (a shiny foil star? a latte? a walk?) for successful completion.

For missing my deadline, a slap upside the head.

On the other hand, compost can be a good thing. I'll get it right next time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Not the Heart, But Maybe

Not the heart, but maybe
the liver. Why not love you
with my whole pancreas?

My thalamus adores you.

My cochlea lies awake all night
filled with you as if by an inner sea.

My kneecaps ache, in dreams
pursuing you with the runner's pure desire.

My heart?

She has gone to dwell
within herself, abbey, abbess
dedicated to her four chambers.

She kneels to pray for purer thoughts
than love of you.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

CALYX Journal: Winter 2012, Vol. 27:1

The new issue of CALYX: A JOURNAL OF ART AND LITERATURE BY WOMEN is now out, featuring my poem, "The Apple Orchard."

It's a terrific issue, and all the more notable for marking 35 years of continuous publication.

Here are a couple of recent pictures of the orchard -- damaged by the recent snowstorm.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tales from Class

In class today, I showed clips from another movie (Twelve Monkeys, directed by the brilliant Terry Gilliam). I had this impression that students were rolling their eyes. Okay, they seemed to be thinking. But that's fiction. We're supposed to be writing true stories.

So what is it that makes us feel that true stories offer us less choice, less opportunity for creativity than do fictional stories? Maybe, in some strange way, true stories offer us more choices, more opportunities.

Last Monday, for instance, I told my students how, when I was younger, I wrote stories that I resolved by having the protagonist (a thinly disguised me) dissolve into tears. Back then, I had so much to learn about story-telling.

"Tears," I informed my students, "are not a resolution to a story. Tears resolve nothing."

But the very next day, over coffee, a friend told a story about almost missing a train. She was young and our setting is Chicago, probably in the late 1950s. She had a big suitcase and she needed to catch a bus so she could get to the train station. But every bus that passed her was already full. None of them stopped. Finally, realizing she could never get to the train on time, she began to sob.

A policeman on horseback stopped and asked her what the matter was. He stopped a cab -- an occupied cab -- and directed the driver to take my friend to the train station. She continued to sob in the cab. She offered to pay for her fare, but the other passenger wouldn't hear of it.

She arrived at the train station, still crying, and began running after the train, which was already pulling out of the station. A conductor saw her -- I would guess because she was such a bedraggled tear-streaked mess by this time -- and stopped the train for her.

All because she cried.

And maybe because she was a beautiful, red-headed teenage girl.

I will be mulling this story over for a while (that story and a child-rearing book I once read, Tears and Tantrums by Aletha Solter, who makes a compelling argument for the resolving power of tears). I hope that my friend will suddenly get the itch to put her story down in all its detail (I've tried to keep it stripped down, as it is her story and not mine). She was catching the train to go to her sister's, but in the novelization I have a feeling a handsome stranger will materialize. (Either way, I'd love to hear more!)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Not sure what year this is,

I'm not sure what year this was taken, recent but not too recent (as that's Dad shoveling snow). I am at the farm now, checking my email -- and on-line class, and writing this post--while Mom showers.

Last night I started rereading Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure, all stuff that I already know (haven't I been teaching short stories and novels for twenty years now?), Chekhov's musket-on-the-wall. But Bickham does a nice job of reminding me that stimulus and effect matter even at the sentence level. I talked with my students about this during workshop this week.

In a composition class it makes perfect sense to write: "Alice went to the circus because her best friend wanted her to." But in a story class, we absolutely must learn to put the stimulus first.

"Alice, if you're really my friend, you'll go with me."

"I hate circuses. Those elephants in chains. Women swinging around at the top of the tent -- you know I'm afraid of heights."

"But Brett is going to be there. That tall boy from math class."

"Then go with the others. Go with the group he's going with."

"I won't be brave enough to talk to him if my best friend isn't there."


Okay, that's what I'm thinking about.

And I'm thinking about how growing up on a farm on Elk Creek road in Lewis Co.,Washington, shaped me into this stubborn and slow-learning creature that I am.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Another farm picture...

This is from the hill overlooking the house. The hillside is much more grown up in trees now.