Saturday, January 31, 2009

Writer Must See

Dried Fern Detail

I write a poem. My sister sees it. Memories flood— creek days, lilac days, pine and pond days. So she writes within my poem, turns it on its side. Suddenly, surprisingly, deliciously, a different slice of past is brought to light. A past I lived but did not remember from that perch in the fir (she was a climber, never I).

Then sweet Ann says this (and I cannot resist putting it in poem dress)...

Sandra and you
are twins... words
in the womb
waters that you both
have birthed here,
sister lines.

You both
have this seeing thing
in your genes...

Ann's words happily recall for me lines from others (and from Ann herself) who have spoken about my book Stone Crossings. Like bookseller Byron Borger, who said, '...I want to write about something else, one of the best books I've read in a while...She has a great eye for details, and a luminous style that revels in God's presence in the day-to-day.' Or Eugene Pratt, who remarked, 'She possesses an eye for striking detail...' And Ann Kroeker who mentions, '...she offers...beautiful detail...'

All this talk about detail, about seeing, sets me to pondering. Maybe seeing is the beginning of good writing, whether poem or prose, comedy or tragedy. Perhaps the first task of the writer is to see or hear, taste or touch, inhale the moment that is right under his (or her) nose. Having done this, the challenge is not to let go of the memory in favor of abstract words.

Let's ponder this together, with an example from my own work. In 'The Watching' (previous post), I originally wrote...

of a mother's mud-patched efforts
to provide comfort and nurture.

But no. Is that what I saw as a child, when I leaned to look into the robin's nest year after year? Can you see comfort and nurture? This is abstractness and has little right to be in a poem (or good writing of any sort). So I went back to my memories and saw the single blue egg that would prematurely crack, ooze yolk. The single egg that was lost despite robin-mother's hard work. And I wrote this instead...

of a mother's mud-patched efforts
to prevent a deadly cracking.

To say cracking is a better choice. It is something we see, understand means death. (Now I think perhaps I needn't have even said deadly, so inherent is death in the cracking itself). Another nice thing happens with the new choice. Cracking has a rough sound that hints at the ominous nature of my childhood setting.

So here is the writer's challenge:

see, taste, touch, smell, hear. Write it down. Excise the abstract where possible. Choose words with sounds that mirror meaning. Suddenly, deliciously, a slice of life is steaming, fragrant, golden, mouthwatering.

If you'd like to try this, here's a line to open (or close or middle) with...

I close my eyes and I can still see... [try to insert a single setting here, or person, or activity, so as to make yourself focus on detail]

Try a short piece. A poem or a vignette (no more than 200 words or so). Take the writer's challenge outlined above. Publish it at your blog and let me know and I'll link to you. Then I'll choose a few to feature at The Seeing, at High Calling Blogs. Try to finish up by Thursday afternoon if you want to be eligible for a possible HCB feature.

I close my eyes and wait for what you will lift from the past... pressed white linens and shined silver, fishing rods and emerald dragonflies, the cracked window at the back of the red shed, lilacs pressed by chubby childhood fingers.

Dried Fern Detail photo, by L.L. Barkat.

Beth's Back from the Clinic
Rebekah's Little Girl
Katrina's The Hayloft
Laura's The Long Ride Home
Rain's Innocence Hill
nAncY's ~eyes closed~
Joelle's Pinto Beans
Hope4Today's I Close My Eyes and I Can Still See
Tina's The Journey
Sarah's Life is Not All About Forward Motion
Nikki's Seeing Detail, Writing it Down
Liz's I Close My Eyes
Unknown Contributor's vignette Pink Frilly Underpants
Joy's Seeing
Erica's Grandmother's Kitchen
Ann's Make Pearls

LL's Stand Still, Let Go, and See
Katrina's I'm Seeing, Noticing
The Seeing, at High Calling Blogs

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Watching

If Memories

On Monday morning, I opened up the Seedlings living room for poem play. Who knew how many hidden poets were among us, ready to respond if only prompted with a few words...

If memories were sparrows

Of course, since then, I too have been intrigued by those words. What might I make of them? This is what came...

'The Watching'

If memories were sparrows,
mine would gather behind
a house half finished aluminum

sided against the landscape, windows
glazed from the inside out with smoke
of cigarette and venison burning.

They would crowd in lavender lilac,
above the intersection where each year
a robin laid impossible blue eggs,

one of which it seems would always
break, sully the perfect roundness
of a mother's mud-patched efforts

to prevent a deadly cracking. Sparrow
memories would rock limbs, tremble
leaves, blot out the threat of rain

while brown haired girls peered over
rim of tight worked straw to watch
a miracle of twin eggs coming to birth.

[UPDATE: Tonight, my sister Sandra sent me this beautiful poem— another lift, a twin, a side window. Makes me wish for a Stone Crossings of sorts from her own hands.


If memories were sparrows,
mine would cluster in the thick
of forest pine bravely stretching

high into the skyscape, branches
broad and twisted, gently worn from
passage of youth’s strong limbs.

They would crowd in treetop perches,
staring down on murky pond face
where fallen cones go to sleep

with black tadpoles whose bodies
morph, from slippery slivers to
croaking fullness, reminding us

to avoid an angry wind. Sparrow
memories would chase salamanders
orange and dry under summer sun

while brown haired girls twitter
bare feet squishing in the mud
that sparkles with broken glass.

— Sandra

Thank you ALL, for taking words that began here and stringing them with hopes, humors, dreams, imaginings and longings of your own. There is still time if you have not yet crafted a poem or want to add to our communal poem (please post all entries by Thursday night, either here in the comment box or on your blog). Then, on Friday, we will have our grand finale at High Calling Blogs.

Katrina's If Memories Were Sparrows
23 Degree's If Memories Were Sparrows
Nikki's trio of memory poems
Sherri Watt
Nancy's poem
Mom2Six's I Start, You Finish
Laure's The 10 O'Clock Evening Hour
Rain's If Memories Were Sparrows
Heather, of Off the Beaten Path
Lorrie's If Memories Were Sparrows
Erica's If Memories Were Sparrows: Playing with Poetry
Joy's The Great Poem Caper
Prairie Chick's Memories
Joelle's If Memories Were Sparrows
Kim's If Memories Were Sparrows
Daune's If Dreams Had Wings Like a Sparrow
Emily's If Memories Were Sparrows
Bought 'As Is' If memories were sparrows...

Memories, mixed media art by Gail Nadeau. Used with permission.

High Calling Blogs RAP: Poem Play

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Monday, January 26, 2009

The Great Poem Caper


Did you hear tell?

Someone lifted my poem last week. Lifted and set it down fresh (and I do intend a double meaning there) in the comment box. It looked suspiciously like my original poem, and yet...

Well, let's just say there were a few surprises in the lifted poem. This caper occurred around the same time that Laure suggested we try a Pass-A-Poem project. (I start, someone else continues, someone else continues, and so on, publishing each version on his/her blog until I finish and publish the poem here and at High Calling Blogs. We wait with bated breath to see the mysterious process of a poem being born from many pens.)

Which made me consider. What fun to propose an all-out festival, The Great Poem Caper. With two [update: three] options. Feel free to do all three options if you're feeling energetic:


I invite you to lift a poem from Seedlings. You could take "Couch", the most recent, or search the sidebar under Poetry. Feel free to publish both my original and your "lift" on your blog or just put your "lift" in my comment box and I'll publish it next week in a post with a link to you. I'll also provide a link to you from High Calling Blogs.


Let's make this as simple as possible. I'll start in a minute, with the first line. If you want to participate, just add your second (or third or fourth or whatever line/s) to mine (or to the previous participant's) right here in the comment box. Please add no more than three lines. Then feel free to take the poem in the stage you left it in over to your blog and publish it. By Friday, I'll wrap up the poem and publish it here and at High Calling Blogs. You are welcome to publish the finished product on your blog too. This is a collaboration, and I promise to link to each participant as a thank you. (NOTE: If for some reason we have a collision in the comment box... two of you pushing the publish button at about the same moment, taking the poem in two different directions, I'll make an executive decision at the point. No worries.)

This is how the poem will work:

My first line
plus your line/s
plus someone else's line/s
plus someone else's line/s
and so on
My wrap-up line.

Here's the first line:

If memories were sparrows

OPTION 3 (thanks, Nancy, for accidentally giving me this idea) FINISH-A-POEM:

Take the first line, If memories were sparrows and craft the rest of the poem on your own. I may publish a few of these at High Calling Blogs on Friday. And I'll definitely provide a link here.

I have to say I love a good caper. Can't wait for the mystery to unfold!

Companions, mixed media art by Gail Nadeau. Used with permission.

LL Elsewhere:
the whirlwind talk from last week
Together Road

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Writing a Poem Isn't Rocket Science

Summer Rain

I realize that I write with different processes depending on the piece. For instance, some projects are just perfect for a little preliminary long-hand work. But others?

Take me and poetry.

I cannot write a poem in longhand. It just flops on the page. Too limp in expression. Too wordy. Too... not enough of what I want from a poem. So when I write poetry, I kiss pen and paper goodbye and enter the world of daydreams. I stay in bed just a little bit longer, pretending to be asleep. Or I exercise. Or drive. I do things that take me away and let my mind present images in rapid fire. I turn these images upside down and backwards, try on words and more words until they start to feel right. Sometimes I do this directly from the keyboard too. Let me illustrate the process with a poem for today. And also say that that process is not as clean as this, but you get the idea.

Step 1: Choose an Object, Person, Event, Experience


Step 2: Daydream in Images (today it happened before I turned out of bed and now I'm adding to it here at the keyboard)

paisley, tattered, dark green, first apartment, sitting before fire with spouse, cuddling, nursing babies one and two, birthday guests, tortilla chips and salsa, home-made spring rolls, new nephew staring at design, kids bouncing on, kids leaning over to look out window and wave goodbye to daddy, shredded

Step 3: Consider Fate and Dig for Meaning

This couch is destined to be replaced as soon as possible. If we'd spent more money on something lasting, we could have held on to it for the life of our marriage, maybe even passed it on to children or grandchildren. As it goes, we'll be tossing out a piece of furniture to the sidewalk. The garbage truck will come and crush it, taking some part of our memories with it.

Step 4: Think in Verbs

toss, crush, drop, lose, mourn, release, turn


If we had known,
when we slapped
down a few hundred
dollars for dark green
paisley with a hidden
sleeper, if we had seen
it coming, the shredded
chintz, tatters, depressions
and how we would not
care to repair it because
it's too short for my
husband to sit on
anyway (hurts his back,
he says), then maybe
we would have dug
a little deeper, sacrificed
more to save for something
lasting, to keep through a lifetime
and pass on to children,
grandchildren. As it goes
we need to toss birthdays,
stray tortilla crumbs
sweat of bodies
embraced, stolen kisses,
accidental spray of suckling
milk, toddler bounces
and goodbyes to daddy at the
window. If we had but known.

Voila! A poem. Some images and verbs came through. Others slipped away. New ones appeared as the poem grew. Daydream time: about 20 minutes. Actual composition time: about 5 minutes. Writing a poem isn't rocket science, after all.

If you try this process and write a poem, let me know about it and I'll be happy to link to you.

High Calling Blogs' RAP: Dreaming in the Comment Box
Erica Hale's RAP: On the Fridge
LL's January
Laure's 11 O'Clock Morning Hour
Ann's homecoming poem
Katrina's In the Stillness

Summer Rain Mixed Media art by Gail Nadeau. Used with permission.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Blogging is a First-Aid Kit

First Aid

I wake to a Monday I think I understand. School the kids. Do the laundry. Pick up the co-op delivery from our neighbor. Blog. Play the flute, maybe cello too. Make dinner. Read before bed. Lights out.

Then I get the email.

Just checking to make sure you're set to speak tomorrow.

TOMORROW?! TOMORROW?! By what disaster of administrative fall-through-the-crackishness did this occur? No time to answer the question. Must write, all day. Must have something to say.

And so I sit. Type. Daydream. Two pages. Sort the whites. Dry the brights. Sit. Type. Three pages, four pages, five pages, six pages. Fold the darks. Eight pages, nine pages, ten pages, plus the prayers. Forget dinner. Leftovers rule.

Who knew? Blogging is a first-aid kit. It used to take me five weeks. Yes. Five weeks to prepare a talk of this magnitude and depth. Especially on a passage like Romans 14-16. But, over two years of blogging later, it has come to this...

Just checking to make sure you're set to speak tomorrow.

'Sure. I'm set. For over two years I have:

- blogged 1-3 times weekly, increasing my speed and basic writing skills
- archived a set of anecdotes and quotes, easily searchable and cut-and-pastable
- processed these anecdotes and quotes with a community of smart, funny, compassionate people
- been forced to focus my writing to meet the goal of a 250-ish-word post (okay, every so once in a while I push the outer limits of this, but not much)
- learned to accept imperfection and half-done-ish-ness (within a certain standard of acceptability)'

Sometimes people ask me, 'How do I become a better writer?' From now on I might just say, 'Why not blog? Especially in short posts. 'Cause blogging is a first-aid kit.'

[UPDATE: the talk transcript]

Marcus Goodyear's 12 Things I've Learned Through Social Media and Blogging

Just Plane Faith, at the High

Dora Bandaids photo by L.L. Barkat.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

A Kiss Before Typing


Lately— before attempting to really, really write— I kiss pen to paper instead of bringing out the keyboard. Like this weekend, when I wrote a letter to my next book...

Okay, let's talk. You and me, God in the Yard. I left you around chapter 5. Mind you, I didn't really leave you... I've just been sorting through the outdoor journal, playing the piano and flute, drinking tea out in the snow and listening to the wind. Did you know that the wind has a sound?

It is the sound of touch and tussle— not the wind's voice but the movement, sighs, whispers, cries of its lovers as it brushes by... the hemlocks, pine, maples, the neighbor's back door swinging her hips...making that saucy 'bang, bang' noise, open shut open shut, you can have me no you can't.

So I haven't really left you. I've just. I'm. I'm like that neighbor's door— open shut open shut. My mind all alive and everything as you pass by, flapping and rising, falling, filling, stilling at the thought of you. I haven't left. I'm just waiting for you to find me, rush me, plaster my senses to the back fence, corner me 'til I blab.

Now to my tea, indoors. To read my notes and to write something, anything...

After I played around writing that in my journal, I was able to approach my manuscript afresh, with less anxiety. It was a good day. Anyway, as I see it, here are the benefits of writing in longhand before sitting down to type, whether we're crafting a book manuscript or a blog post...

- the mind opens up in a whole different way, maybe because, as Richard Restak observes, writing by hand stimulates the brain more than typing (or at least differently than typing)
- longhand has a sense of flow and an unfinished quality that helps us play
- similarly, composed type looks so finished that we get prematurely serious; we're think we're finished, when what we really need is a good edit

Benefits aside though... who wouldn't enjoy a little kiss before typing?

If you try writing a letter to an inanimate object or a person (I know, in some cases these might seem one and the same), let me know and I'll link to you. For instance, I could see Linda following up on her Blog-it-From-a-Photo project by writing a letter to her saddle shoes or her father (or both! but maybe not at the same time).

The Kiss photo by L.L. Barkat.

Katrina's Dear... (Note: the letter to the Cheez-Its is not to be missed.)
Erica's Letter to My Unfinished Novel
Laura's Sheltering In
Lynet's Letters
Sarah's Dearest, Darling Novel

Ann's Pain to Poetry
Unknown Contributor's Grandmother
Jennifer's Poetry of Facebook
Kim's For My Friend
LL's Holding, in 'Hungry for Sabbath' post
Erica's Work of His Hand
Joelle's Speak Nothing

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

RAP: Found in the Outdoor Journal IV

Moss in the Woods

Well, it's done. One full year of outdoor journal tucked into chapters, for potential use when I finally start (finish?) writing God in the Yard. Here are some random fragments I rescued from the last pages and put into poem form.

I'm planning to make this the year of the journal. A different kind of journal, using Journaling as a Spiritual Practice to guide me. So hopefully I'll still have random poems to find and set here.


Blueberry bushes
stripped, lean, beautiful
amber and crimson against
a bronze needle bed.


How desperately
the dog next door
tells the world
that I am


Moon shimmers, glassy blue
night; I lie under glistening
pine, watch house lights shine
over empty white yard while my
girl cuts cucumber crescents
on grain-gold kitchen counters.


Three cardinals volley
chirps, swing calls—
bush to hemlock to pine.


Snow descends in dancing
sheets, sparkling cloth flung
out by a dressmaker’s hands.


Trees black, struck against
faded cobalt sky and the sun
leaking tears, yellow, pink.


Furled leaves of wild
garlic mustard and, soon,
forsythia breakfasts!


Hemlocks sway, twigs
snap, slap the air—bold
tango at yard’s edge.


Faintest tongues
of forsythia speak
cheer into the yard.


Forsythia triple-
leafed—fleur de lis
gracing the woods.


Red thorn berry
shriveled, deepened
to muted cranberry—
too-long suckled
by winter’s


Thorn-studded branch—
wan skeleton, brittle
against the landscape.


Look around! Watch
the hemlocks swinging
hear the ‘thtick thtick’ of
little pinecones dropping
touch the pearl-blue sky
see the buds swelling
in hopes of spring.

Moss photo by L.L. Barkat.

Ann's Of Launching and Recovering
Mom2Six's Poetry
Erica's Morketiden
High Calling's The Poetry of Twitter
Joelle's Emptied

High Calling's Confetti Days

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Blog it from a Photo

Stone Crossings by Tina

I've been meaning to share this wonderful picture from Tina. And since we're talking about how to get ideas for blogging, it seemed to be as good a time as any. Because, in the past, we've talked about how pictures contain stories.

I happen to know that this picture has some kind of story in it. Something about the way Tina and her family collect memories. (Yes, I'll invite her to stop by and tell the story or tell it on her own blog.) [UPDATE: here's the story, tucked into a review... thanks, Tina!]

In the meantime, what pictures could help you tell a story today? (Sweetcorn, I noticed you used photos to help you along. Brava!)

Tell me a story through a picture and I'll link to you. Take a photo of Stone Crossings AND tell me a story like Ann did, and I'll provide a permanent link as part of Links for Art.

Stories from pictures. Maybe that's how the best things we say tend to happen anyway.

Linda: Grapes of Wrath
Kim's Wedding Blessing
Laura's Beautiful
Bill's It's Not What You Know...

CPYU Bookshelf's Book Awards: Best Books Read in 2008
Tina's Stone Crossings

Stone Crossings photo by Tina. Used with permission.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Becoming a Blogger

Journaling as a Spiritual Practice


I really don't like being...


But when I'm sick on the Sabbath, there's a secret hurrah that rises up within me. I know I will stay home. All alone. There will be peace. There will be silence. And because I don't blog on Sundays, there will be reading. In between napping and cups of tea.

Two Sabbaths in a row, I've been sick (I'm sure my family suspects a ploy!). Two Sabbaths in a row, I have napped, sipped tea, and read books. And been inspired. Very inspired.

One Sabbath at a time. For today, let's go back to a sleepy afternoon. To Journaling as a Spiritual Practice.

I was supposed to read it slowly and do journaling exercises along the way. Oops, the pages just kept turning until, sigh, there were no more to turn. By nightfall, I was thinking about my first JASP post: this one, dedicated to three new bloggers I recently processed at High Calling Blogs.

Sweet Corn & Cairo. Hope42Day. And The Unknown Contributor.

Because I remember what it was like to be a new blogger. The wide world before me. So much to say and so little ability to say it. Millions of blogs to make my way amongst. Zero comments, zero comments. Then, oh! A surprise comment from some really big blogger who kindly deigned to be the Welcome Wagon of the blogosphere. It was... intimidating.

Just like opening a blank journal for the first time. All that s p a c e.

Helen Cepero offers this to the hesitant journaler. And I offer it to the new bloggers of the world. She says that a journal is a 'place to meet your particular life and befriend it.' She also says, 'Sometimes it is hard for us to claim our own voice with its specific timbre and accent, to walk down the pathway that lies before us, to choose the life that we are given.'

Then she offers a little exercise called 'Reflections on Your Name,' which goes like this...

Write your full name across the top of a blank journal [blog post] page. If you have... a nickname, include that as well. Look carefully at those combinations of letters, those words that somehow identify you. Think about where those names come from and all of the memories, feelings and stories connected to your full name. Begin to write openly and freely... Who named you? Have you ever renamed yourself? How has your name changed as you have gotten older or when you got married? Have your feelings about your name changed over time? How are your parents or grandparents or distant ancestors present in your name? How do you see (or not see) the outlines of your own story in your name?

Becoming a blogger is, in some way, making a name for oneself, as well as bringing one's name to the world just-as-it-is. No small effort, in my opinion.

So, a few things. Maybe today, you who have made your names, shared your names (and continue to share them), might walk on by and leave your own Welcome Wagon gift at the door of these new bloggers. Or maybe you'd like to try Cepero's exercise (let me know if you do and I'll link to you). Or maybe you'd like to leave your own wise thoughts on becoming a blogger, here or on your blog (again, I'll link if you do).

And for our new bloggers, the pathway lies before you. Remember, as Cepero quotes from poet Mary Oliver...

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Hope42Day's Reflections on My Blogger Name
Billy's What's in a Name

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Year of Dreams

Eiffel Tower

You want to do everything, he said.

How could I explain to my husband? It's true. I have dreams.

Not quite so extensive as everything, but dreams nonetheless. Not resolutions, mind you. After all, how many people really keep their New Year's resolutions? And where is the inspiration in resolutions?

Dreams, on the other hand, seem to be exactly the thing. They are open ended... at either end. If I say I am dreaming of being a skater, it doesn't matter that I can already skate on one foot and skate backwards and do the setup for a jump. It doesn't matter either if I never do a double axle. I understand that dreams can be unpredictable, that sometimes we don't even know what form our longings will take, in what dream they'll show up.

Still, this new year I am dreaming of dreams...

I want to skate in winter's lap, glide through months on one foot, spin past summer with a bag of French verbs that say, 'Mon cheri you can be a flutist again, brush up that guitar, dance if you wish, finish writing your book with a figure eight, be a better poet and friend, delve into the life of Dorothy Day, share a hot drink with Samuel Hazo, find beginnings and endings, put to bed a few old griefs, trace your dreams on the ice and follow them.'

Happy New Year, my friends. I hope you are dreaming too.

Eiffel Tower photo, by L.L. Barkat.

Charity's A Plan and a Future

LL's Random Acts of Poetry: Public Display of Affection at High Calling Blogs
Erica Hale's Poetry Friday
Mom2Six's New Year Poetry
Sarah's Enough (scroll to bottom of post)
nAncY's For LL, a poem on sweet dreams
Laure's The 1 O'Clock Afternoon Hour
Jennifer's Whatsoever Things

I didn't know people named years when I wrote this post. But Ann does. I like that.

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