Teacher

Fountain Reflected in Ice, Boston Public Garden, taken by Me, Feb 8, 2022

I am savoring Jane Hirshfield’s most recent poetry book Ledger

She is my idol. No one has better guided me through how poems work and what they can do. Her own poetry, for me, combines creative precision of language and air-in-winter-clarity-fed-by-Buddhist-sensibility.  What do I mean by “creative precision”? Hirshfield knows where the expected and the unexpected need to go, and what is just enough. 

I’ve also met her. I have. One of the two hands typing this has been held inside her two hands that she writes with. It really has.

She has translated women’s poetry from the ancient court of Japan. These poets often used the form of waka or tanka, a five-line poem that has 5-7-5-7-7 for syllables, as if a haiku got two extra lines. Centuries ago, the language of educated men in Japan was Chinese, as Greek and Latin were for educated English-speaking men in the past. Often it was women, writing poems that were part of the practice of their courtly love lives, that kept Japanese poetry evolving.

I love these forms as a reader and writer. I used to dig my heels into the challenge of sticking to the syllable count and still getting something expressed. More recently, I practice these forms as many other writers of English do, pursuing the spirit of the form instead of the exactness of the numbers. For me, that is a practice of writing from somewhere that is not my intellect, definitely a change from the past.

That being said, I have published examples of these forms with correct numbers, work I’m proud of. I can do it. I just don’t want to. The simplicity and moments of presence in these tiny poems are more fulfilling than making a puzzle of their syllables. 

I wrote a series of tanka dedicated to Jane Hirshfield, and now I am revising them without the syllable counts, but with more…well, both honesty and ambiguity. The ways those two forces work together in language, and support each other, currently has my attention. Reality is full of ambiguity to be reported honestly. Honesty is sometimes accomplished through being ambiguous. 

Here is the current draft of what used to be the by-the-number poems, opened up. I kept the form for the third stanza, but elsewhere I let it go.

Teacher
	for Jane Hirshfield

Precise hand
print from ancient Japan:
The deep drifts
of garment in the open
space, her room. Woman

writing to a lover
past sunrise, poems
that tell, that keep. This,
their way of moments,
of tristesse and breath. 

First five syllables,
seven, five, seven, seven.
In addition, may 
I reveal what I desire?
The first time. Are not all times

the snowfall yesterday,
your papers freshly dust?
Almost the picture, Lady
Teacher, write with me. Let’s
call them from the blankness.

Are you a good switch or a bad switch??

I was watching a video this morning about simplifying life, trying to figure out where I put that idea down and walked away from it. I’m curious how other people put life goals into words, and this person had a thoughtful, practical list. What stood out for me was her term for something I’ve struggled with the last few months. I guess I could have guessed there would be a term for it. Task-switching.

It’s not multi-tasking. I don’t. I can’t. I used to. Nope. I’m remembering to drink my tea in between sentences here, and that’s as far as that goes. Task-switchers do one thing at a time, but they jump around too much, too fast, too often. My task-switching mind is frankly out of control and wearing me out.

Part of the problem is the gig economy, even though I like/love my jobs. I try to designate days they will occupy, but the emails crossover, the meetings jump the fence, and my own thoughts run screaming from job to job out of habit. And each switch requires putting aside a ton of thoughts and knowledge before picking up, however briefly, a whole other huge set of thoughts and knowledge.

This is not conducive to creative time and space, is it? Nope. Each job has a variety of tasks and projects, did I mention that? It’s all cramming my brain like that hall closet no one should ever, ever open. Like the ship’s cabin scene in the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera. (Watch it if you haven’t. Have a laugh at the highly organized absurdity. Any similarities between it and actual lives is intentional and to be noted.)

As we switch into February, I am going to focus on cutting out the task-switching. This is probably going to involve doing less for, and thinking less about, my jobs, and yet still insisting to myself that I am a good enough person. That’s the other part: I’m driven to task-switch by inner messages I should not listen to.

It’s also going to involve a good switch in perception. Did you ever suddenly realize that your perception of something was creating an actual obstacle in your life? I realized recently that I never reward myself for writing practice, because I perceive my practice AS the reward. For getting everything else done to everyone else’s satisfaction and in their best interest, thus justifying the writing time I am then too tired to enjoy. Whoops. May I just say that? Whoops.

Because Blizzard

Because when there is a blizzard and you have to style your plants, there is a blizzard and you have to style your plants.

Because when a Buddha postcard, books, and an old panda are creatively involved, they are creatively involved.

The two tomatoes grew from market produce. The snake plant was adopted from family. The palm was left in the building basement. All other plants are the children of two cuttings I happened to get from a volunteer gig in the early 90s. Shells from Peabody’s Beach, Middletown, RI. The goldfish is a wind-up toy.

Creativity can be just to please yourself.

Creative Echoes

Photo by me!

One of my favorite things about being an 18th-century geek who works in an 18th-century building is the time there alone my job requires. I love to share King’s Chapel’s history with visitors, and to write about it, but doing my opening/closing tasks in a meditative state of mind is also wonderful. The building gets a chance to show me the small, quiet things about itself, its little pockets of Creativity.

Here are two examples sourced in the beautiful work that craftspeople did long ago.

The huge original beams that cross the crypt ceiling were trees that sprouted in the early 1600s, perhaps the 1500s. Those who shaped these beams straddled them and took steps backwards as they worked with their blades. The visible marks show a lovely wave pattern that still evokes their hands and bodies at work.

Many of the small panes in the fairly majestic windows are original to the building. Being hand-made glass, they have inconsistencies in texture that make each a piece of craft. At certain times of day in certain seasons, the light coming through onto the pew walls (beautiful pieces of woodworking in their own right) collects and displays the character of the panes in bright patches of pattern.

Photo by me!

Firsts for the First

I’m thinking about creative first lines for the first, naturally enough for a bookhound. What are the most famous first lines in English? I guessed three. Of course, there’s the one that makes reference to its own place in the book, “In the beginning…” Then there’s “To be, or not to be…”. While not an official opening line, it is the first line of the speech.

I also guessed “T’was the night before Christmas…” That one got me started thinking about time in first lines, and, of course, “Once upon a time” may be the most well-known beginning there is. I assume many languages have their version of it to turn to. It’s interesting that two literary classics begin, or almost begin with it. Poe’s “The Raven” at least starts “Once upon”, if only to plunge us into, not a time, but a timeless “midnight dreary” where Life and Rationality get crept up on by their opposites.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, despite being a modernist classic, does begin “Once upon a time…” because the main character’s uncle is telling baby Stephen a story about a little boy and a cow. If you’re a Literary Geek, this is kinda funny.

Of course, Dickens left the timestampers in the dust with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”. A lot of first lines like to pin down time, as if this is the information we want and need first. A personal perennial favorite is: “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.” How dull, really. But he will shortly meet an unusual person who might look like Basil Rathbone or Benedict Cumberbatch or my friend Donald. This will shake him up a bit and liven the storytelling considerably.

For the sake of my friend and fab fellow blogger, I have to add to this category “Captain’s Log, Stardate series of numbers I’m sure the Trekkies have sorted out into a calendar”.

I suppose marking time– sunlight, seasons, writing deadlines– is a survival tactic as old as our ability to do it. I almost don’t dare write that I hope today is a marker pointing in some good directions, but I suppose Betty White would want me to do it. And then to say swear words and laugh a lot and say/do something kind.

Another first line I’ve known nearly forever came to my mind, and I’ll end on it. It sounds dire, asking a heavy question rather than offering safe information to hold on to: “‘Where’s Pa going with that ax?’ said Fern to her mother…” It’s the first line of Charlotte’s Web, and it doesn’t begin to hint at the wonder, writing, Love, and “the glory of everything” to come. I think it’s the first line I need today.

Its author, E. B. White, is a favorite of my dear friend Bob Colonna, to whom this first post of 2022 is dedicated with all my spun-silk love.

(The photo is E. B. White and Minnie.)

Blogging for a Fuller Life

“Generally speaking, writing doesn’t improve from writers’ indefinitely putting off the moment when they set words to paper. On the contrary, it depends on writers’ being venturesome– like the vast plant and animal world, with its myriad false starts.”

“In my view, no one still up to the task of uttering a brand-new sentence is not also capable of growing more whole daily. May that livening experience– and true gladness for the chance of it, as well– be my reader’s fate.”

My brand-new sentences:

Here I have quoted Lawrence Weinstein from Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us, and I will try to let it inspire me daily. Sitting down and doing the work is up to me, but not to the overloaded, stamina-wielding me. Rather, it’s up to a more spacious me who is learning to say No to overload without fruit or meaning.

Month’s End

Photo by me, Jamaica Pond, Jamaica Plain, MA

So I’ve tried to do my bit for Poetry Month and Decorating Month. I want to wish everyone a positive May and end the month with a quotation from Rebecca Solnit. This is from Recollections of My Nonexistence, which I recommend to Creative People. She’s writing about books, but I think it applies to all Creativity:

“The sheer pleasure of meeting new voices and ideas and possibilities, having the world become more coherent in some subtle or enormous way, extending of filling in your map of the universe, is not nearly celebrated enough, nor is the beauty of finding pattern and meaning. But these awakenings recur, and every time they do there’s joy.”

Both beautiful and true, I think. Wishing you all some joy. Or, re: my photo, something to be your ground and bedrock, something to be your growth, and something to be your fluid freedom. See in you in May.

Untitled Poem

Working Poetry Month, another work in progress, responses welcome

Untitled

The silence circles its fingertip
on the rim of a glass, and the tone
comes, strung ice-water tight.

The afternoon looks out the window.
An old chair offers the body
ease, and neither speaks.

Senses float, here and there
exclaiming their hunger like gulls
that slice across the view outside.

The willow’s winter straws cross
and twist. How can these knotted strings be
eternal, simple, yellow since

before and after your words? 
How can this tree not
know you, when it flows as you breathe?

Photo by me, Fens Victory Gardens, Boston, MA

“More Space” for Poetry Month

Photo by Kristin Vogt on Pexels.com
More Space

Things palpably everywhere seem identical,
so snow is sunlight. And rain
a thousand maple leaves 
seen from underneath.
The appearance of space around,
through, within the fume of fog
or a shining glass sky outlines
the objects it obscures. Nothing
reveals more space than
space taken, when emptiness 
so visibly embodies
there being nowhere to go. 

ADVISE? I perhaps think one or two more concrete images might be wanted. If this brought any images to your mind, will you please comment and share them?  Thank you! (Yes, thanks for asking, it IS a big deal for a recovering perfectionist to post Work in Progress and admit it. I'm pretty pleased with me right now.)

And the Space on My Bookshelf Goes To…

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

Since a number of Creative people spent Sunday night thanking other Creative people for their contribution to whatever the first Creative people accomplished, I’d like to do the same.

Since I mentioned the many designers and foragers whose books inspire me, I thought to list them here. It’s by no means all of them: Turns out the Boston Public Library doesn’t like it much when you take down a whole shelf of books and park on the carpet right there. The ones I own, and some of the ones I love, are:

The New Bohemians (Justina Blakeney is kind of a goddess.)

Flea Market Style (A fun, Creative force, this team. Will make you want to hit that flea and hit it hard, as my friend would say.)

Junk Style (Melanie Molesworth, aside from having an awesome name, is one of my gurus.)

Simple Home: Calm Spaces for Comfortable Living (The Baileys are…simply great.)

Wild at Home: How to Style and Care for Beautiful Plants (My newest addition. Exuberant, with ideas for the simple space. A girl can dream of having a fig tree.)

The Stylist’s Guide to NYC (Sibella Court, whose other books I have read and hope to obtain, is a magic person.)

If anyone has recommendations, please do comment. Books, designers, stuff, Instagram, whatever.