Silence and Self-Reliance

This poem by Marianne Moore (1935) resonates with me about the kind of perspective required to be a disciplined writer:

Silence (1935) Marianne Moore

My father used to say,

“Superior people never make long visits,

have to be shown Longfellow’s grave

or glass flowers at Harvard.

Self-reliant like a cat–

that takes its prey to privacy,

the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth–

they sometimes enjoy solitude,

and can be robbed of speech

by speech which has delighted them.

The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;

not in silence, but restraint.”

Nor was he insincere in saying, “Make my house your inn.”

Inns are not residencies.

The superior writer does not rely on other people’s praise to fuel her writing practice.  The superior writer does not sit back and wait for something fascinating to write about next.  The superior writer goes after life instead of waiting for life to happen–alert, fascinated, ready to take notes and transform experiences into words.  The superior writer understands how to enjoy and experience life without sucking the life out of everything and everybody else.  The superior writer appreciates it when good things come along, but does not sit around waiting for good things to come along. The superior writer knows how to keep going when good things don’t come along.

Bitterness and Writing

There is a lot of wisdom in this edition of “Fury”–VIDA’s advice column for concerned writers.  In #15, Grateful VIDA-Lovin’ Lady complains about how her MFA program didn’t prepare her for the real world.  I could sort of relate.  We go to school hoping we’ll be a bit more prepared to be a writer, and that means, have insight into how to publish.  Sometimes it seems like people are leaving us out so we won’t be successful (*seems* being the operative word here). Teachers are often hesitant to give details about this, and though the article guesses this is because teachers don’t want to be discouraging, I also think it’s because publishing has changed an awful lot since the early 90s, when many (most of my) professors were getting their MFAs.  The writer complaining about her MFA program says she’s ditched writing poetry for Children’s books, and she expresses a lot of bitterness towards her program for not better bolstering her poetry career.

VIDA responds:

…complain about them all you want  … populate forums with alarming anecdotes about your lazy teachers, but don’t stop writing. If you can give up writing poetry that easily, it was never going to be the thing you ended up doing. Writers write because they feel they must, not because they did or didn’t get a degree. Because poetry doesn’t need a time out; your feelings of resentment and frustration do! Just because you feel bitter about having wasted your time at a shitty MFA program, don’t take it out on the thing you love.

What a great reminder. I mean, why did we get degrees in the first place?

Here’s the thing about breaking into writing as a profession: there is not one path.  Listen to interviews (Bookworms, especially), and you won’t hear the same story about how writers broke through.  I asked each of my professors something about the writing profession and got widely different responses.  Why? Because, again, there is not one path.

A huge part of being a writer, and I’ve probably said this before, is figuring out what you have control over and doing your best with that small portion of your career.  Trust me, that small portion is a lot of work. Writing grants, submitting stories, working to pay for writing conferences, etc. Also, consistently trying to improve our craft.

Write your best, keep growing, and keep seeking.  Maybe I’m too much of a mystic, but I think that if we put forth the effort, our work will find a way to reach people.

The Fury writer (response from VIDA) was correct in naming luck, talent, and perseverance as the magic ingredients for a writing-success-cocktail. If you are thinking of getting an MFA, remember that nobody is going to persevere for you.  Nobody is obligated to make you famous or show you how to be famous.  If we approach our writing and careers generously, we will probably have a better chance at laying out a path to publishing.  Bitterness is probably the thing I’ve seen kill most writers.  Not a realization or feeling that they aren’t good enough, but a feeling that someone else didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Here’s what bitterness is: feeling bad because you didn’t get something you feel entitled to.

Here’s the way to avoid bitterness: Feel entitled to nothing.

Understand that if you’re writing because you feel entitled to have the world acknowledge your words, chances are, you’re probably not writing anything the world really needs. Write because you want to contribute to a conversation.

Meet Nick Sturm (and his book of poetry)

Nick is my colleague down here in Tallahassee but I think of him as a Midwestern poet, specifically an Ohio poet because he’s from Akron.  He makes Akron seem cool, like the Black Keys make Akron seem cool. The first time I hung out with him, he came and joined a bunch of poets on my porch, brought a bottle of excellent whiskey, and wrote a bunch of poems with the group on the backs of pizza boxes.  I still have those pizza boxes.  They are, as Nick would say, “Rad”. He’s not just cool though, he’s impressive.  Every time I turn around, Nick’s doing something awesome related to poetry, or he’s got a new poem appearing somewhere awesome.   Like when I went to his Facebook wall to catch up on where he’s at on his current book tour, I saw that many of his friends were re-posting this new poem of his, which was recently published on the PEN American Center’s website.  I would say that Nick is just having a really good summer but believe me, he’s like this all year long.

H_NGM_N recently published his first book of poetry:

Like Nick himself, his book is doing things. Lots of things. He’s got several poems called “What a Tremendous Time We’re Having,” spliced between other poems, my favorite of which have titles that start with “Basic Guide…”  He’s got a Basic Guide to History that would make Woody Guthrie and Emma Goldman blush.  He’s got a Basic Guide to Friendship, which made enchiladas sound delicious and necessary. He’s got a Basic Guide to Success, Basic Guide to Growing Up, and a Basic Guide to Emergency that had one of my favorite lines in the whole book:

Every moment is an emergency and every emergency is an array of juxtaposition and grace.”

His book is anything but basic.  It’s an unbasic guide to a whole bunch of truths, and many of these truths had me laughing in public.  In some ways, reading Nick’s poems reminded me of last Thanksgiving, when I spent the afternoon in my apartment with my brother listening to all the Mitch Hedberg Youtube had to offer.  Like this line of Nick’s:

I wash my laundry in blue sauce.

and this line, which comes from the same “What a Tremendous Time We’re Having!” poem:

Sunflowers have the hospital surrounded

Like Mitch Hedberg, Nick’s poems are full of moments that make me stop and say, “Huh.I never saw it like that…” Moments that, I would say, indicate that I’m reading great poetry.  Some of these moments are sad, or nostalgic, or humble:

I feel like an air conditioner emitting/a kind of stupid music for you all but all I want/is not to be invisible.”

In the end, his repeated title proves true. We’re having a tremendous time and we don’t want it to end. Knowing Nick, there are plenty of tremendous poems coming soon.

You can buy his book here.

You can also watch H_NGM_N’s promotional video for his book:


TODAY’S PROMPT: take an old poem, without a copyright, and put a tune to it.

Rhyming is so out of poetry-style these days that if you can find a poem that rhymes, you’re likely to be safe.  But just in case the song you half-create today is amazing enough to hit the airwaves and/or you just want to be careful, here is a website of poems in the public domain.  It’s not hugely expansive, but it’ll get you started.  Also, the site has nine Oscar Wilde poems on it. I didn’t even know he wrote poems. Doh.

Give it a shot!

SONG OF THE DAY: Richard Cory

Paul Simon is a poetry buff, if you haven’t noticed.  He’s one of the most poetic lyricists we’ve got.  This song, from his Garfunkel days, springs out of a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson by the same title. Read the poem and you can see that S&G took a lot of liberty, i.e. rewrote and updated it.  You can do this, too! You can do anything and everything you want to interpret and own the poem you’re working with.


Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.


Happy Songwriting month! Are you ready to write a song now?

We’re going to be writing a new song every three days so that we can come out of this adventure with 10 new songs.

Intimidated? I get it, so am I, but we can do it.  Remember, the songs don’t have to be brilliant, just workable.  We have all month and then the rest of our lives to make the song spectacular.

TODAY’S PROMPT: Write a sonnet and put a tune to it.

It’s okay if you don’t know or remember how a sonnet works because I’m about to tell you.

It’s simple: The only rule is it has to be 14 lines. In a song, that’s probably going to look like three verses and a rhyming couplet at the end.

You can go Shakespearean on the rhyme scheme:





Or Petrarchan:





Or you can do whatever you want! The only rule is that it has to be 14 lines.

You can be super formulaic and write each line in iambic pentameter, but in my experience, ten syllable lines sound terrible in songs. (Yes, I have tried to fit iambic pentameter in a lyric line before.  Have I mentioned that I’m a nerd?)

One thing you might try, which works wonders in getting the song to move, is to try the traditional sonnet form for subject/verse relationship.  It goes something like this:

Verse one makes a statement or proposes a problem.

Verse two develops that statement or problem.

Verse Three counters the statement, or tosses a curve-ball into what you’re developing.

The end, or rhyming couplet somehow brings conclusion to the problem you’ve set up.

Have a go!


This song has nothing to do with sonnets.  It’s the first Tom Waits song I ever loved.  The real reason I’m choosing it is because I’m hitting the road real early this morning to embark on a long drive home. It is the world’s best song for an early morning’s drive.

By the way, someone posted the whole Closing Time album on Youtube and that’s what I’ve posted. Listen to the whole thing! It’s so good. And sexy. Young Tom Waits is actually sexy.

He’s also a poet, which makes him appropriate for sonnet day.

You’re a poet too, Shakespeare. Now go at it.

In Memory…

Yesterday I found out that a local Detroit performer, Blair, passed away over the weekend. A blogger for the Metro Times did a nice write-up on him, which will give you a sense of who he was and what he accomplished in his too-short life.

I first met him while working with this theater group in the city in preparation for a trip to South Africa.  He taught a poetry class for senior citizens at Hannan House, and I observed/assisted when I could.  I knew nothing about poetry but learned a lot about it from him–mostly about capturing emotion in description.  He was good at that.

The trip was rough for me. The first time I’d been out of the country.  I didn’t get along well with the people who brought me (to be cryptic about it…) and was a real mess during the plane ride home.  As I was sorting the experience out, he told me some hard truths that I’m still trying to grapple with, about catching problems early and solving them right away.  About being quick to communicate.  I didn’t want to hear any of this but of course he was right.  I can’t say I was a good listener but I did hear what he said.  Right after that, he offered me an opportunity to open for him at a music concert the next week after we returned.  This was my first musical gig, and though I still write songs and perform them, my fiction has lately dominated most of my time and artistic energy.  Thinking about him makes me want to pick up my guitar again.  That’s beside my point–I am remembering Blair for his amazing kindness to young artists, for his generosity.  He probably thought I was really young and naive, which I certainly was, but in that conversation he helped me out every way he could. I want and try to be like him.

The last time I saw Blair perform was a couple of years ago, when he released a debut CD with his band, The Boyfriends.  Though he was a fantastic musician, it’s his poetry that I will remember him by the most.  He performed this poem as a tribute to our city:

He was important to us.  We will feel his loss for a long time.