The Tyranny of Intention

As we approach the deadline for the WA 129 project, I thought that it might be useful to share a few directives that have always helped me when working on my own writing—both in generating new poems and thinking through older drafts.

  1. It’s always a challenge to find those poems that matter most to you, that come from intense feeling—but more than just feeling, intense intellectual engagement, extreme physical engagement (hiking, fence hole digging, yoga, and dance):  those activities and passions in which the sense of self falls away and leaves verb, action, or, as William Carlos Williams put it—contact.  And yet–it’s exactly those poems that we must search for, must apply ourselves to writing.  Those urgencies are where the (fill in the blank: heart?  spirit?  soul?) reside, and it’s only those intensities that can initiate powerful poems.  But see (B):
  2. Learn to subvert the “tyranny of our intentions.”  That’s a phrase that Chris Howell used when I interviewed him for one of the conversations that ended up in Range of the Possible. Anyhow, I think that Howell’s caution is against trying to control our art too much and points us toward many valuable notions:  Dean Young’s phrase “the art of recklessness” is another version of the same idea; we need to be receptive to the creative forces that are not immediately apparent to us; we need to realize our habits, the imaginative ruts into which we easily slip–and avoid such patterns. We need to understand that the subconscious is tuned in to creative energies that the rational may never recognize. Simply (ha!), be open to the swerves that your poem might take—the images that might not be exactly in the direction where you think the poem should go but that bring about something unexpected.  The unexpected can lead to surprise (which can lead to astonishment, often the dwelling place of great art).
  3. Don’t judge yourself or your poems.   One of my favorite anecdotes about writing comes from a Bill Moyers’s interview with William Stafford; Stafford talks about his writing routine; he wakes in the early morning (4 or 5 a.m.) and leans back on his couch with a legal pad to write down whatever comes to him; Moyers asks, “What if what you write isn’t any good?”  Stafford, always cagey and wise, replies, “Then I lower my standards.”  I don’t believe in writer’s block; I believe in our powerful ability to self-censor, self-scrutinize, shut down creativity before it even happens.  So:  lower your standards.  Make something. Create.  Go into the trance, “the realizations in language” that Stafford talks about in this video.
  4. Ilya Kaminsky gave a talk at this fall’s Litfuse Festival in Tieton. He was great, and he emphasized three simple generalizations about writing that are always smart to keep in mind.  First, think about how your nouns should usually be images; think of the difference between “a plate heaped with food” and “a plate with stacks of sliced Swiss cheese, shredded lettuce, and eight slices of tomato.”  The generalized “food” is mushy as a plate of overcooked pasta; the particular (especially the colors!) of the cheese and tomatoes stand out in the mind’s eye.  Second, verbs should generate energy.  Is, was, have—those weak linking and helping verbs take away the fire of language’s connections.  Lastly, you should weigh and measure the usage of every modifier—adjectives and adverbs.  Only keep those that are absolutely necessary.

The rather eventful last month took me to many wonderful places in our state:  Yakima (see Mark Fuzie in a photo below) and Woodinville, Redmond and Tulip (what an amazing cultural center), as well as return trips to Metaline Falls and Ritzville (we made poems!).  I also gave talks on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, “What Fiction Writers Can Learn from Poetry,” and met with the wonderful Rotarian Club of Lake City, Washington!  And so much more: I had a chance to listen to hear Brenda Hillman (see her below in Capitol Hill as part of the fantastic Cascadia Poetry Festival), Heather McHugh, and so many other wonderful poets, including the energetic crew at the Everett Poetry Nite.

I’m looking forward to my last few trips of 2016–to Lacey, Seattle, and Tacoma; Curlew and Republic, Chewelah, Soap Lake, and Ephrata.

No Bigfoot: But Some Little Feet

I was just in Mineral, Wa, at The Mineral School, a place where Jane Hodges has launched an artist residency program in a 1947 school house.  It’s an ambitious undertaking in a really wonderful building in a secluded place–Mineral has a campground, a small general store, a tavern, and a church (as well as a few tractors and some big trout that I’ve seen rising in the lake).  Perfect seclusion to get some work done, to focus on the poem, the novel, the memoir or book of essays.  It’s been my home base for visits to Centralia College, Onalaska High School, and Eatonville High School, and today, I’ll go to the Salkum Branch of the Timberland Library system.  Keeping busy and meeting wonderful people, dedicated teachers, and community members who value connection with one another and the world around them.

I went on a walk down the road from The Mineral School to see Mt. Rainier–too cloudy and rainy–but found instead the Mineral Lake Lodge and this cool quilt made by Caroline, the owner: Yeats is everywhere!  If only the world wasn’t so full of weeping.  A great visit to a wet and wild and secluded part of our state–and no Bigfoot sightings, although I did see this: img_1882

Little feet (see them up in the corner?):  one of the great artists of the last century who wrote:  “There has been a shift of emphasis in the practice of the arts of painting, music and dancing during the last few years. There are no labels yet but there are ideas. These ideas seem primarily concerned with something being exactly what it is in its time and place, and not in its having actual or symbolic reference to other things. A thing is just that thing. It is good that each thing be accorded this recognition and this love. Of course, the world being what it is-or the way we are coming to understand it now-we know that each thing is also every other thing, either actually or potentially. So we don’t, it seems to me, have to worry ourselves about providing relationships and continuities and orders and structures-they cannot be avoided.”

And then, on my last day there:  the mountain.


Next entry (per a request) will offer some ideas to help with writing–



Don’t Think Twice

Not much time for reflection–been zooming around the state, meeting wonderful poets and fans of poetry and readers of poetry and people who are just kind of curious what a Washington State Poet Laureate (and a poem) might look like.  From glorious apples in Chelan and the great fun of being part of a poetry pole celebration in Cle Elum to the honor of reading with Charles Johnson and Bridget Foley at Bedtime Stories, it’s been a busy few weeks.

Coming up next week:  a journey to Mineral, WA (to read with Nicole Hardy), and several events at schools and libraries in surrounding communities!

And how does it feel?  Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate!  His words have been a part of my life since childhood; I can vividly remember my father singing Dylan songs while strumming his guitar:  a bold and wonderful choice by the Nobel Committee.

The Dragons are Singing

Am in the middle of a wild month of travels and events–Bellingham, Edmonds, Royal City, Chelan, Seattle, Newport, and so many places and people and poems.  For example, last week, I had the honor of being part of a tribute to Jack Prelutsky at Poetry Camp! in Bellingham and the great pleasure of working with writers at the Write on the Sound Conference.  So much word energy!  So many generous and brilliant people welcoming me and engaging my outreach efforts.  Here are a few photos–

Honoring Jack Prelutsky’s decades of magical work was a distinguished honor that I will never forget–

And Nikki Grimes was there!  And so many other poets and writers and friends.

Again–Walt :
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

What the River Says

I just spent five days in Twisp, Winthrop, Okanogan, and Brewster.  Of course, while I was there, I had to take a minute to read William Stafford’s wonderful poem (behind the bookstore in Winthrop)–and think about helping and hurting.  Methow Arts sponsored my visit; they are a dynamic organization that offers a wide-range of public events in the area.  From international music to poetry workshops, their yearly schedule is impressive; however great it is, though, the public programming isn’t the most compelling work that they do.  I went to Okanogan and Brewster schools on Thursday and Friday of my visit, and I met with hundreds of students, and teachers at both schools praised Methow Arts for spreading resources into areas that have less funding for the arts and humanities.  They are a fine model for all of us to emulate–to borrow from Stafford, they are an organization that helps, that makes a difference.

Methow Arts is also launching this really great space in Twisp where the public can tour the workshops of practicing artists (printmakers and designers and many other mediums)–and, of course, buy great art.  Twisp Works is a literal campus of artistic bustle and good energy.  Check it out if you get to the region. I’m off to Royal City and West Seattle and Wallingford and Benton City and Tieton this week, and I’m glad that I’ll carry the good energy of the Methow River (and its people) with me.

Silver Apples

One of my favorite poems is Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus;” it’s a magical poem that is mostly about the imagination and “seeking our bliss,” although it can seem like a strange love poem after a first read.  Anyhow, I am back on the road, wandering “through hollow lands / And hilly lands,” visiting Olympia (last week) and Twisp and Brewster and Okanogon and Royal City this week–with many more smaller towns on the schedule.  IMG_1721.JPGThe students have been wonderful–full of bright ideas and great energy–and the teachers have been equally great.  When I witness the teachers’ care with younger people, with these delicate and impressionable vessels, I’m filled with such admiration–and energy to go more places, try to do more. Today was especially motivating; at the Okanogon Middle School, we wrote poems and talked about language, and the students were so generous sharing their creativity, so full of smart comments–and caring comments–that I didn’t even feel tired driving back West over the mountains to Winthrop.  We talked about “what mattered to them,” some of their favorite words.  i read a few poems by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.  One student said that his greatest fear was to lose his family.  Another described how she watched the 69 Camaro that was soon to be her car burn in their yard last summer.  They trusted me with words and thoughts and poems, and I was so grateful for that trust.  Walt Whitman writes about turning your life into a poem, and although I usually talk about that at schools, I felt no need to do so today–they get it, have got it, are doing it.

I’ll be driving and meeting many people this fall–chasing the magic silver and golden apples–and although I’ll sometimes tire of driving, I doubt that I will tire of these young bards and their magical words.

A Stone of the Heart

I’ve just returned home after about a month abroad, mainly in Ireland.  The country was, of course, green and hilly and rich with history, stunning scenery, moving mythical tales–so many stories and songs, a dense and beautiful texture.  The ruins are emblematic and everywhere:  a 6th century cathedral where St. Patrick chipped his tooth, a beehive of stacked stones on the Aran islands where monks slept, maybe hearing their God in the nearby ocean waves, and many, many miles of mended walls, piled rocks, those walls humanity so loves to build.

Ireland is, of course, a small country–about half the square mileage of Washington with about two and half million fewer inhabitants.  It’s also an incredibly literary country:  four Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature have come from Eire, only a few less than the United States.  The art of story and the power of song are deeply enmeshed in the culture of the island and in the visible ways that literature is still alive: through the vibrant contemporary scene, through the ongoing recognition of the importance of the literary past, through the energy of song and music in pubs, and through public displays that celebrate the art.

For example, the poems in these images are from a  poetry walk in Letterfrack–a small village right near the Connemara National Park; on the walk, you’ll find wonderful works by Theo Dorgan, Mary O’Malley, Paula Meehan (Chair in Poetry of Ireland), and, perhaps surprisingly, Michael D. Higgins, The President of Ireland.  The.  President.  Of.  Ireland.  Higgins, by the way, is the author of several books of poetry, and as his writing clearly shows, he believes that his art is a place where he can express his ideology.

Visiting Ireland in 2016 meant that reminders of Easter Rising were ever-present:  Ireland’s history is, of course, filled with bloodshed connected both to British rule and internal conflicts.  I should mention that I also visited Belfast and Berlin (two places of walls and violence) for a few days, paid attention to the ongoing turmoil in Europe and here at home, and thought a lot about the relationship between poetry and communities, art and terror, words used carefully, craftily, and candidly (as well as words screamed with hatred and fury).  Perhaps life should always be filled with this level of passionate intensity, but if that’s the case, then, to borrow language from Yeats, the polite meaningless words of our casual comedy don’t seem up to the task.  We seem in a crucible, of sorts, or, to continue to borrow Yeats’s language, a troubled, living stream, and the words of the moment seem heavy with import:  one misspoken phrase can make a stone of the heart.

Which means, I guess, that we should be careful with our words and attentive in our listening.  I’ve seen and heard far too many election arguments gone ballistic, quarrels about guns and violence and gender and race within families–my own family–and among friends and neighbors that transform utterly the people involved.  Meditating on W.H. Auden’s oft-quoted-out-of-context line–“For poetry makes nothing happen,” lines that were written in an elegy to W.B. Yeats during the madness of Europe just before the Second World War, Paula Meehan offers us something to think about, “But, maybe, we might read that ‘nothing’ as a positive thing.  If poetry makes nothing happen, maybe it stops something happening, stops time, takes our breath away . . . Maybe it’s like the negative space in a painting by which what is there is revealed.”  That is, taking a breath–being made breathless–isn’t necessarily a negative:  grand scenery and rich history and those moments when the world stuns us can all trigger this response, this hesitancy, a pause, the uncertain moment that leads to renewed careful attention, perhaps even revelation of what might not have been heard or seen otherwise.