too early for Happy Lamb

[July 14]

Something I like about travel is that it kicks my “everything can become a subject line or poem seed” mindset into a higher gear. I’d thought about stopping by Happy Lamb Hot Pot on my way to South Station, but it doesn’t open on Sundays until noon, and I’d already used up my cutting-things-close quotient yesterday, when I capped my 79-hour work week by setting off alarms at the Southwest kiosk by checking my luggage in late. One failed geocaching attempt and beer request later (Tavern in the Square being out of Lord Hobo Brewing Boom [sic] Sauce, I’m chilling out with tortilla soup, a pint of Devil’s Purse Pollock IPA, and the ideal pair of screens (Federer-Djokovic next to the departing train list) in front of me:

tennis at South Station

[July 21]

… and I was not so chill as Federer came oh-so-close to winning the championship. It was fun, though, to watch and listen to the other occupants of the bar cheer and moan in response to the rallies, the aces, and the misses, and as the set stretched on, the clusters of onlookers on three sides of the bar thickened:

tennis at South Station

The night before, I’d ended up walking past St. James the Greater twice on my way from the Silver Line stop to the hostel. [It was past midnight by the time I reached the hostel, I had a 1 p.m. train to catch, and (as feared) I was running on fumes with work still in tow, so I didn’t try to meet up with any friends this round.] That said, if I hadn’t been hauling two weeks’ worth of clothes and music/dance paraphernalia with me, I still might have been tempted to wander around until 2 a.m., to see more and take notes. (One trickle of people included several Asian women holding armfuls of flowers, reminding me of the pageant contestants I spotted two Mays ago in San Francisco, during another walk that ended up being less straightforward than planned.)

Instead, I scribbled a few lines to myself in Bunk #4 before sacking out and, over two bagels and a bowl of coffee, wrestle-teased them into the start of something more:

the start of a poem

the start of a poem

the start of a poem

I’ll return to it in August, perhaps. Right now I’m at the Amherst Early Music Festival, and it’s wrenching enough having to choose among things I can enjoy only while here (practicing on lutes and harpsichords in particular), pursuits that would arguably provide larger returns were I to devote myself more fully to them (e.g., building vocal and keyboard chops), time with people, time with trees, time in/on water, time on postcards (to voters, decision-makers, and others),
and so on. And, like on Friday, sometimes the right move is to nap instead of practice, even when one feels woefully underprepared for, say, playing quartets. Or to seek out a keyboard in a nearly empty building long after nightfall instead of attending a party. Sometimes I feel pangs about the many details that will evaporate from my memory sooner than later because I’m not journaling like I used to — but, even back then, there were poems I started and then lost momentum on. There’s a sliver of me that hasn’t let go of finishing the one about the Christian Science Center pool, keeping company with the Past Mes who put her feet wrong every which where — including just yesterday. (The good thing is that as I get older I have gotten a smidge faster at getting over myself.)

Surrounding all this, of course, is delight and wonder. I’m mopping my face and neck and cleavage every three minutes, and the little breezes that do make it through my open window feel all the more divine. Someone down the hall is playing their violin. Most of the faculty members and many of the students are accomplished musicians. There are heart-tugging phrases in the Rameau pieces I’ve been inflicting on the harpsichords, and there are encounters with, say, bass recorders that look like contemporary public art:

faculty concert

I hadn’t planned on drafting any new poetry during this trip, what with the intensity/immersive pace I knew to expect, so to have a poem insist on getting started — those three pages above — that too is a gift.

introducing Dawn McDuffie: “Where do you find these ideas?”

Dawn McDuffie is a wonderful woman whom I’ve had the good fortune to know since the mid-1990s; we met at a YMCA Writer’s Voice workshop in Detroit. For the past twenty years (!) or so, we’ve corresponded about applications, books, church life, dolls, eats, and a good many things beyond. This is her first post for Vary the Line; please check back each month for more insights from Dawn (and the rest of us).

Where do you find these ideas?

I spent an hour or so this afternoon watching a pair of monarch butterflies flit from yard to yard. The four households own tiny city lots, but the homeowners have stuffed them with flowers and tasty milkweed. It seems unfair that the grace of butterflies, the changing of colors as one perennial blooms and another dies back — that all these riches didn’t inspire a new poem, although I did write a haibun last year during a terrible drought. In the same way, the current political state has sparked a sense of dread, but has not given me any poems. I’m grateful that somewhere between pure beauty and total distress I find possibilities lining up, waiting to be written. Here’s the haibun from last summer’s heat wave:

Detroit, summer 2016

7:00 A.M. and it’s 80° in our back yard, a small space surrounded by a high fence, and most years, the green of shade and sun, regular rain. Tangerine day lilies, pink lilies, coral bells with their sparkle wands tolerate the dry part of summer, but none of our plants can stay healthy with no rain at all. Summer thunder storms have passed us by. I go to bed with a glass of water on the night stand, just in case I’m too thirsty to sleep. In the morning I pour what I didn’t finish into a black plastic watering can. Seedlings, I’m sharing my drink with you.

Thirsty hummingbirds,
I have watered the bee balm,
cool gifts quickly gone.

What is a poem?

I believe that poetry is music. I believe that poetry is medicine.

A poem is a naked man, a pair of red shoes, a broken spine, a duck. It’s a raised eyebrow and a shout. A whisper against fear. A manicure. A sharpening.

It’s something language does when it’s left alone to brood. At its best, it’s a rifle and a revolution, blood pooling below a punched eye. An assassin’s blade. A newscaster’s voice breaking at the roll call of the dead. The truth we can’t stand. At its worst, it’s a shibboleth of class. A vase of white flowers in a white room. An airless room. An airlock.

You have a pair of lips. Two hands. Fury, despair, an appreciation for beauty. Build a poem. You have a left ventricle and a right to freedom of beseech. Like a person, a poem is an oddity. A machine that operates like nothing else. Poetry is breaking its own engine. Poetry is seeing which gears roll out.


“Tomas, get to work”

Susan Scheid, within a post on Tranströmer’s hadynpockets:

In 1990, Tranströmer suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body and affected his speech. In 2007, The Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry awarded Tranströmer its second Lifetime Recognition Award. Robert Hass, in his tribute to Tranströmer at the event, related that “when he had the stroke, his wife Monika . . . who is a nurse, drove into Stockholm and bought, because Tomas loved playing the piano, the entire Western literature for piano for the left hand, I’m told, and brought it back and said, ‘Tomas, get to work.’”


the tree that bears the fruit / is not the one that was planted

Today’s conundrum subject line comes from W. S. Merwin’s “Place,” which I saw this morning both in an e-mail from Poetry Daily and in the April issue of Oprah’s magazine. (Yeah, still making my way through it.)

Also in O: an interview with Maya Angelou.

Q: How do you write?

MA: I keep a hotel room in my town, although I have a large house. And I go there at about 5:30 in the morning, and I start working. And I don’t allow anybody to come in that room. I work on yellow pads and with ballpoint pens. I keep a Bible, a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a bottle of sherry. I stay there until midday.


I keep meaning to mention that Mary and I have a collaboration up at Blue Print Review. This delights me.

Also, I will be reading with Jane Ormerod and Ice Gayle Johnson at Nashville’s Global Education Center on Friday, May 13, at 7:30 pm. Admission is $8. Jane and Ice Gayle are co-editors of an Uphook Press anthology that will include one of my poems.


Some of the poems on the tabs I’ve had open:

Life is a long song

The glory of words

New fruit

a blade into his heart

not broken, but rearranged

I’m liking what I’ve read so far of Lauren Kizi-Ann Alleyne’s poetry:

  • Reb reprinted On the day of your favorite color: at the BAP blog
  • A selection at the Drunken Boat (including “It is not impossible to survive,” from which today’s subject line is taken)
  • Five poems in the No Tell Motel archives. Mmm. I’ve printed “Bend, Bend, Break” to put in my re-read binder.

  • As for me, there’s The Silence of Too Much To Say at unFold, and a packet almost ready to mail out. According to my submissions log, it’s the first snail mail batch I’ve prepared this year. Oy and oof. Maybe I’ll declare October to be la grande PegPoSubMo. (Maybe I should get back to the Must Dos currently in the way of my Wanna Writes. Yeah.)

    Robin Morgan’s “Monster”

    I have been struggling to find all of Robin Morgan’s poem “Monster” since I read an excerpt of it on Feminist SF – The Blog.

    It’s an angry poem and I adore it. I would love to quote you the entirety of the piece, all 6 pages of its glory, but I would also like to respect Morgan‘s creative ownership of the piece.

    I admire its bravery, I admire the descent to violence but not the submission to violence. I need it because it reminds me that there are ways of writing that align with my ways of being and that most of the written word and the spoken word are not written and spoken in those ways. It reminds me that there is nothing wrong or despicable about who I am.

    Here is an excerpt:

    And you, men. Lovers, brothers, fathers, sons.
    I have loved you and love you still, if for no other reason
    than that you came wailing from the monster
    while the monster hunched in pain to give you the power
    to break her spell.
    Well, we must break it ourselves, at last.
    And I will speak less and less and less to you
    and more and more in crazy gibberish you cannot understand:
    witches’ incantations, poetry, old women’s mutterings,
    schizophrenic code, accents, keening, firebombs,
    poison, knives, bullets, and whatever else will invent
    this freedom.

    This is adult, end-of-the-day Poetry Friday.

    “And since we’ll devote all our years / To making things that disappear”

    So, my home phone/internet’s been out of commission since Friday, and there was an airline clusterfuck on Sunday that ended up costing me two cab fares, 50% of my too-late-to-cancel guest-house reservation for yesterday night, and several hours of my life that I don’t get back. Grr, grr, grr.
    That said, I was glad to end up with more time to herd a few more things into order… including completing the “Wishes At Time of Death” form my pastor keeps on file, which includes specifying any readings desired. For what it’s worth, I want Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment” and Jane Hirshfield’s “The Heart’s Counting Knows Only One” either in the program or read aloud. I’m betting there will be an Emily Dickinson in there as well – though how I will collect if the reader in question chooses as expected, I haven’t quite worked out. (Maybe a dram of Edradour poured over my ashes? But that would be a waste of good whisky…)
    I also treated myself to a glass of Canton ginger liqueur , a long hot soak in the tub, and some visiting with my poetry books. Of particular note:

  • “Dock Ellis Pitches a No Hitter While on LSD” – in Jilly Dybka’s Trouble and Honey. A fun sonnet.
  • Lights, Camera, Poetry! American Movie Poems, the First Hundred Years, edited by Jason Shinder (Harcourt 1996). A book I’ve browsed through in the bath before, judging from the water damage and dog-ears. What disconcerted me this time was seeing how many people have passed away since the anthology was compiled: Shinder included birth- and death-dates in the table of contents, with the youngest poet (Tom Andrews) born in 1961, and quite a few of the living-at-the-time poets are no longer (including Andrews, as well as Shinder himself). I’m used to encountering this in much older collections (e.g., Pockets and Penguins from before 1960), where it’s unsettling in a more expected way (akin to seeing photographs of older relatives and colleagues when they were teenagers). Seeing it in a book I received as uncorrected page proofs has me in the mood to revisit various laments for makaris and makers (cf. Scanlan (source of today’s subject line); Dunbar; W.S. Merwin (anthologized in The River Sound and Lament for the Makers: A Memorial Anthology; I own the former and am now wishing I’d checked it before I left, because I can almost remember his couplet about Nemerov (“sadder than…”) but not quite). And for any Washington DC folks reading this, there’s a gathering on November 11…)
    Anyhow, I un-dogeared some older favorites, and marked some newly noteworthy to me. Current standouts include:
    • Paul Goodman’s “Documentary Film of Churchill” (“What is it with this race that does not learn? / I am weary for meaning and they tire / my soul with great deeds. Yet I cannot turn / my eyes from the stupid story in despair: / since I have undertaken to be born.”)
    • Michael Warr’s “Die Again Black Hero: Version II (Chicago, March 1990)” (“Predictable. / So same-old-shit predictable. / The Marine whose skin / Matches the surface color / Of an Uzi has to die first. /Even on another planet / This dogma cannot be escaped…”)
    • Thylia Moss’s “Hattie and the Power of Biscuits” (“What a wonder she didn’t use strychinine dough.”)
    From The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel: Second Floor, Michael Meyerhofer’s “Shame as Proof of True Love”:

    …real love, I’ve decided, is when
    you see your lover at their most
    awkward, wretched moments
    and still want to fuck them later.

    There are a couple upcoming deadlines I’ve been working toward, and I’m hopeful about meeting them, albeit not at the expense of time with friends and improving my Hebrew and other being-here-in-the-present priorities. That said, there’s a part of my brain that’s ruthless about testing words with and against each other until they fit just so, and when it’s in gear, there’s no getting any sleep until it’s gotten its due. (In other words, this is why I spent a good chunk of early Monday morning working on two new cinquains instead of sinking back into sleep. At this point, it shouldn’t surprise that me that putting together forty-four syllables = as complicated as shaping water. (Think of fountains. Think of ice. Think of how some faucets gurgle and some whine like tired teakettles. Some poems are downpours that clog up gutters and destroy posters; others strike as lightly as a flutter of drops on a lemon tree. And I seem to be writing a poem in spite of myself, so I’d best wrap this up and pour the rest of my words into something eventually submittable (it’s 1:15 am here, and where I’m staying, the only creatures still awake besides me are a cat in heat and the occasional palmetto bug scuttling across the stones).

  • Lured into a Line

    I have been bitten by Marissa’s meme (even if I have just now had time to copy):

    Give me the title of a poem I’ve never written, and feedback telling me what you liked best about it, and I will tell you any of: the first line, the last line, the thing that made me want to write it, the biggest problem I had while writing it, why it almost never got offered to magazines, the scene that hit the cutting room floor but that I wish I’d been able to salvage, or something else that I want readers to know.

    Also, like Marissa, I ask that you don’t comment with stuff you wouldn’t want me to run with. Because I will run.

    Ready? Set?

    PAD 18 and 19

    My weekend went off its rails in a spectacular but mostly enjoyable way, and I blame movies: Friday night’s excursion to see Sita Sings the Blues was followed by a nice dinner, during which one of my companions confessed she had never tasted a sazerac before, which then resulted in cocktails, port, and whisky back at our house (and her eventually staying the night).

    Then, on Saturday, I saw My Neighbor Totoro, and spent the rest of the day resisting the urge write futurefic about its characters and to splurge on plushie slippers.

    I resorted to concentrating on a difficult section in one of my existing fics-in-progress to help get my brain back into gear, but then I got engrossed in what the characters weren’t managing to say to each other, and what was supposed to have been a 500-word write-it-out-and-fix-it-later pre-supper indulgence turned into most of my weekend wrangling with multiple variations of three lines of dialogue (because the second line turned out to be a darling that needed killin’, only I didn’t get around to admitting that until after supper tonight). For a fic in a rare fandom that maybe five people will read. I have the stupidest compulsions this side of the Cumberland.

    All that said, the 541 words I came up with delight me: a major reason I write fanfic is because it pushes me to engage more deeply with canon, and I end up surprising myself with dialogue and plot twists that weren’t anywhere in my consciousness when I started the story in question. That’s true of poetry as well: my piece for yesterday’s Poetic Asides prompt, “interactions,” was originally going to be something about William Shakespeare and Michael Jordan — I’d parked in space #23 in the Belcourt lot when I went to see Totoro, so that got me thinking about soaring and mastery and how neither Renaissance dramas nor NBA games are solo efforts (Shakespeare’s birthday/deathday is April 23, and Jordan’s jersey number in Chicago was #23).

    But is that what I ended up with? No….

    Practicing Jump Shots With William Shakespeare

    Considering that I’m near-sighted, with
    next-to-zero hand-eye coordination,
    we’re definitely not in heaven, but
    considering how many commandments I’ve trashed
    and how he probably didn’t love his wife enough,
    we’re in awfully good shape for the damned, and it helps
    that we don’t actually get to talk, what with chasing
    the eight out of ten balls we don’t quite manage
    to catch from the shadows on the sidelines, and
    then more chasing after the nine out of ten
    that miss the hoop. The bounce and clunk of the balls
    supply a rhythm — DAH-dah, DAH-dah-dah,
    dah, dah-DAH, dah-DAH-dah-dah-DAH —
    I ought to turn into a song, and on
    the other side of the paint, I can tell
    Mr. Shakespeare’s shooting to miss
    different parts of the backboard, so he can see
    for himself which parts actually shake
    and which remain mute and unmoved.
    If this were a different playground, I’d ride
    his ass about his rot about “ever-fixed marks”
    but no one’s keeping score, and when he lobs
    a beautiful iamb my way — dah-DAH —
    I fling it straight through the hoop, all net.

    # # #

    As for Sunday’s prompt, “anger,” I was originally stumped — not for lack of things to say on the topic, but “things to say” isn’t the same as “things I’m ready to say,” never mind “things sayable in lyric form.” There’s a page in my planner across which I scrawled a couple dozen ideas during lunchtime. When I finally sat down to do more with the tulips, my working title was “Remains” — but halfway through my original second stanza, I changed the title to “Aftermath,” and then I went back to the top of the poem and rewrote every line I’d typed in so far. (Today’s word for the writing process is definitely Sisyphean.)


    This morning, the tulips were fresh
    in a florist’s vase: four were candy pink,
    four were butter yellow,
    four were milk white,
    and one was licorice purple-black.

    Now they are confetti on the driveway.
    The glass has been swept up, but I cannot
    repair how the water blurred the “3”
    on your daughter’s hopscotch trail.

    I have been making a point
    of preparing meals
    that will keep for several days.

    Even so, after you both
    left the table before dessert,
    I had to count to ten
    while I rinsed the dishes.

    – pld

    [N.b. Not an autobiographical poem, but with friends whose marriages are breaking up, the topic has not been far from my mind.]