A Little Something to Get You Writing

One of my daughters is moving home temporarily, and cleaning out the bottom story of our house — which includes a mother-in-law kitchen we’ve never really used — has necessitated another attempt to reduce the amount of paper I’ve stored in bins and boxes. I threw away a bunch of old literature assignments, and I found a notebook I kept when Writing Lab was first launched.

Our writing group has a couple of new or newish members, so I thought I’d replicate the first meeting, at which several of us (including me) did not yet have our textbook, Susan Tiberghien‘s One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft (Marlowe & Company, 2007).

Our first exercise that day was from Heather Sellers’Page after Page:

  1. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, LIST 10 THINGS YOU DID YESTERDAY.
  2. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (that’s Sellers’s dictum; it’s okay with me if you switch to cursive at this point), WRITE FOR 10 MINUTES (set a timer!) ABOUT ONE ITEM ON YOUR LIST.
  3. We then talked about what it felt like to write in all caps, and agreed that writing in caps slowed us down, and felt a little like drawing the letters. We had to think more, and some people felt frustrated by that. (Note, years later, I did this exercise with a class that included a couple of engineers — they said they always wrote in all caps, and didn’t get the point of it at all.)
  4. Obviously, you can keep at this, tackling each item on the list by turn, or letting one insight or detail from the first free write lead you to a new exploration.

The next exercise was from Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story:

  1. On the left hand side of a blank page, write the numbers 1-30 (all the way down the side).
  2. Beside number 1, write I AM BORN.
  3. Now fill in the title chapters for the rest of your life story.
  4. After doing this…though we ran out of time and talked about it instead…the next step is to choose one chapter and break it into 30 more chapters — or, failing that —  people-places-things that the chapter could, conceivably, include.

(I wish I could recover all the nuances of our conversation about this exercise — it was rich!)

I recommended typing up the exercises to prod them into becoming something more (always works for me). Before adjourning, we agreed to meet weekly, and I asked everyone to read Tiberghien’s first chapter, “Journal Writing,” for the following week.

“In the degree that we remember and retell our stories and create new ones we become the authors, the authorities of our own lives.” –Sam Keen

Persimmon Tree and Windfall

Persimmon Tree

Remember earlier this year when I spent 100 days sending out my work?

Here are two of the results of that blitz, both of which hit my in-box or mailbox this week.

The first is a creative nonfiction essay—“About a Marriage, from A to Zed”—in the superlative Persimmon Tree: an On-line Magazine of the Arts by Women over Sixty. Click HERE to read my essay. The entire on-line issue is free (donations welcome).

“About a Marriage” was featured in the promotional email, with this thumbnail review:

This inventive and constantly intriguing essay does just what the title says. But Bethany Reid’s alphabet is like no other. The referent for each new letter is so unexpected that, by the time she has brought us all the way from A (for anorexia), stopping briefly at F (for Fight or Flight), and S (for Spaghetti, of course), nothing that Z could possibly stand for will surprise us. Or maybe it still can.

As a bonus, when I visited the page, I found comments from three complete strangers. (I guess I can stop saying that only my friends read what I write.)

The Passing of Windfall

The other publication is a print one, and a long-time favorite of mine, Windfall: A Journal of Poetry and Place. It was with genuine sadness that I learned the next issue will be Windfall’s last. “We have never broken even on any issue in twenty years,” the editors admit in their foreword. “Now the costs have risen above our capacity to absorb them.” All I can say is, this is a crying shame.

My subscription ran out on this issue, so I’ll be sending $7 to get the last issue. I hope you’ll consider joining me, and maybe purchasing Fall 2021 or other back-issues as well.

Fall 2021, well worth the cost, features poems from 27 northwest writers–including Christopher Howell, Penelope Scambly Schott, Donna Mendelson, and Carlos Reyes. It ends, as does every issue of Windfall, with an essay about poetry and place, written by editors Bill Siverly and Michael McDowell. (All of the essays are available at their website.) The essay for this issue, “Monuments and Poetry of Place,” included several poems. Here’s one:

Standing beneath the Statue of Sacagawea in Washington Park during the Racial Justice Protests of 2020

“a woman with a party of men is a token of peace” —Captain William Clark, 1805

Bronze traveler with baby on your back,
twenty tons of Oregon copper were mined
to make you. You’re looking beyond me.
From where I stand you’re unreachable.

Across the world people are tumbling
statues, taking down old heroes (now pariahs)
and erecting new ones, renaming buildings,
mascots, boulevards, dreams.

Bird Woman, what do we do with you?
We aren’t sure how to say your name,
we don’t know when you were born or died,
but we know you, a chief’s daughter, were never paid.

What if the Hidatsa had not kidnapped
you and forced you into slavery?
What if your Hidatsa man hadn’t lost at gambling
and traded you to Charbonneau to pay the debt?

Young native sold to white man.
Small woman helping men.
Some might call you traitor.
Some might see you as victim.

You are the axis, pathfinder, key.
Without you there would have been
no horses, no foraging of forest food,
no otter robe, no shared language.

As a girl I played here years ago with my sisters.
On hot August evening we ate barbequed chicken

Washington Park statue of Sacajawea and her baby, from Wikipedia

on paper plates with sweet corn and coleslaw.
Barefoot, we ran circles around you.

Lemhi Shoshone woman, strong swimmer,
cooking camas, keeping peace,
when I walk alone in old forests
of ambiguous shapes, I almost see you.

—Christine Colasurdo

Click on this link to visit Windfall to purchase a copy. You’ll find a form to print out and mail in with your check (beautifully old-school).

What I’m Falling For

I opened the new issue of Passager (Issue 71, 2021 Poetry Contest) to find a Fall poem, and lost (or found) the next hour, reading poem after poem. It’s a wonderful issue, and I’m happy to recommend it—and not only because it includes a poem of mine.

This poem makes me think of fall, though I’m not sure that’s the season represented.

Sacred

The imprint of a perfect sphere
lies almost hidden in the bleached grasses
of this abandoned field. Each
year it seems to expand a little like a stone’s
splash in the weeds of still water.

Some call it Alien. Others the ring
around the ghost of a felled oak. Or merely
mycology, the way fungus arcs outward
from single spore. It’s the exactness

that entices. A galaxy laid flat. When
I step inside I feel the clockwise spin
and then how motion washes inward
and out again along invisible spokes. I

have never known such stillness
and radiance, abandoned like the pasture.
A necessary journey somewhere—or just here.

—Joanne M. Clarkson

Clarkson’s poem is a time-machine. Typing those words, I’m struck by how many poems are precisely that. But here it’s not just that the poem woos the past back but that the particular moment we’re invited to visit is one in which the poet steps into an enchanted circle and…goes…somewhere. Is it just that the poet has entered a “thin place,” where the past, present, and future all whirl together? In the fall of the year, it seems to me, we are especially susceptible to such places. Everything is changing. We can struggle to hang onto what we know, or we can, as someone wise once told me, “embrace the changing.”

So that’s what I’m tasking myself with. What are those slippery places in my own life where time has stopped rushing forward and held me in place to look? Or catapulted me backwards, “the clockwise spin / and then…”? When have I felt “such stillness /and radiance, abandoned…”?

 

The Autumn Equinox

Tomorrow — at 12:21 p.m., in my area at least — autumn begins. It seems an excellent time to write a fall poem. Here’s one that I’ve cribbed from the collection at https://www.poetryfoundation.org.

For the Chipmunk in My Yard

I think he knows I’m alive, having come down
The three steps of the back porch
And given me a good once over. All afternoon
He’s been moving back and forth,
Gathering odd bits of walnut shells and twigs,
While all about him the great fields tumble
To the blades of the thresher. He’s lucky
To be where he is, wild with all that happens.
He’s lucky he’s not one of the shadows
Living in the blond heart of the wheat.
This autumn when trees bolt, dark with the fires
Of starlight, he’ll curl among their roots,
Wanting nothing but the slow burn of matter
On which he fastens like a small, brown flame.

I am still reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter an essay each week or so — and I just came across “The Beast in the Book.” She got me thinking about animals and how we share the world with them, not very politely, and how rich children’s literature is with animals. As Le Guin puts it:

The general purpose of a myth is to tell us who we are — who we are as a people. Mythic narrative affirms our community and our responsibilities, and is told in the form of teaching-stories both to children and adults.

–Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin doesn’t find it at all curious that children learn to read by sounding out the words in “Peter Rabbit,” or that they weep over Black Beauty. She finds it a shame that as we grow older we lose our facility to identify with animals. I loved this paragraph, about T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone:

Merlyn undertakes Arthur’s education, which consists mostly of being turned into animals. Here we meet the great mythic theme of Transformation, which is a central act of shamanism, though Merlyn doesn’t make any fuss about it. The boy becomes a fish, a hawk, a snake, an owl, and a badger. He participates, at thirty years per minute, in the sentience of trees, and then, at two million years per second, in the sentience of stones. All these scenes of participation in nonhuman being are funny, vivid, startling, and wise.

–Ursula K. Le Guin

I think it’s that “sentience of trees” that really made that paragraph stick for me, as I’ve also been reading Peter  Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees

My challenge for you this week is to write an autumn poem about some living being in your backyard or near environs. Like Robert Gibb’s chipmunk, how does this creature, with its small flame of wildness, teach you to be alive?

https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/species/tamiasciurus-douglasii

I don’t have chipmunks in my backyard, but we do have the small brown Douglas squirrels and the invasive, bigger gray squirrels. We sometimes have possums and raccoons; more rarely we’ve sighted deer and coyotes. Always, there are the birds: flickers, juncos, towhees, Stellar’s jays, flocks of crows each dusk. Last week, on a late walk with my dog, Pabu, I watched a flock of geese pass over, honking. The other day, my husband saw what he swears was a merlin, which is as good a sign of the changing season as any.