Spontaneous Poetry: A Festival and a Challenge

Finding the August Postcard Poetry Fest was an accident. It was just one of those dozens of submission calls that overwhelm my inbox every week, but this one, I happened to read. Click here to learn more about how it works, but the concept is simple: you sign up the week of July 4th, you get put into a group with thirty-one other people who have signed up, and then you commit to Continue reading “Spontaneous Poetry: A Festival and a Challenge”

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So, What’s Been Happening, And What Comes Next

I hope you all enjoyed my Poem-A-Day series this year for National Poetry Month! I loved curating it and am already working on next year’s series. (In case you missed the poems from this April, though, click here to begin with the 1st and then follow the links at the bottoms of the pages to read them all.)

And then what came after National Poetry Month? May, also known as National Stress Out About Grades Month, or the Month of AP Exams and (in Texas, at least) Finals and More Grading Than Ought To Be Allowed By The Laws Of Human Decency. (Yes, I’ve heard the adorable arguments about assigning fewer papers so I’ll have fewer papers to grade. Doesn’t seem to help. Funny that.) At any rate, May is universally stressful for teachers here, and, well, that’s where things are with my day job. But I’m getting close to the end of all of that, because summer. I have, at the time of this post, 29 essay tests, 7 screenplays, and 29 in-class writing assignments left to grade before my final exam on Friday morning.

I can do this.

I think I can do this.

At any rate, it’s a finite problem. The semester always ends.

And once it does, I’ll be back to posting here on the blog. Not every day, dear readers. But the Monday Earworms, which seem to be popular, will probably come back, and there’ll be more substantive posts here and there as well. Maybe some poetry — maybe even some of my poetry.

What else is taking up my writing time these days? Thank you for asking.

Look for a new book of poems to be out later this year. (That’s Priority One at the moment, due to my editor in probably fewer weeks than it seems like.)

I’m also shopping around a high fantasy novel that’s the first of a trilogy.

For those of you who loved Finis. — and I’m so happy and grateful to those of you who have sent me emails and tweets and letters and marvelously illustrated cards about how much you’re still enjoying it! — there’s another story set in that world, currently in revisions. (Want to know whom it’s about? Think wolves. I’m really excited about this one!) Finis. is now also available at a new venue where you can purchase it as an ebook, or even read it for free: click here for the Myth Machine experience.

And because I just don’t have enough to do, I’m developing a textbook for the AP Gothic Literature class I’ve been teaching for the last quite-a-number-of-years.

Finally, as if that weren’t enough, I’m about a third of the way into writing a brand-new standalone novel. This one doesn’t have a working title yet, but imagine a Steampunk-flavored ghost story which includes political intrigue and romance, and you might get a little idea of what’s coming. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I had that manuscript ready to send out this time next year?

Yes. Yes, it would. We shall see.

Poem-A-Day: Marie Marshall

I always want to post a poem in April by Scotland-based Marie Marshall because she does such wonderful and thought-provoking work. She also defies description — as in she literally defies it, which you may glean from her unconventional bio below. Her poetry and poetic style evolve and seek to push formal boundaries. She also writes fiction and posts it at her blog from time to time and has a few books out.

Probably the less I say the better. I think she would appreciate your having the chance to parse out her work for yourself.

***

Today’s poem

 

 

“I was sevened and all
willowed-out, left and
bereft, reeling, punch-

loved; take an honest
hour to tour me; thumb
my spine, read what’s

implied by the rises &
falls, find where scars
crisscross to deviate.”

High over Spitzbergen
it moved from aurora to
real morning, the song
of dying stars, the roll
and the tumble chasing
birds – all the cries and
clattering wingbeats, a
rite of drunken daytime
– a knife in a nightside.

The poet had no spare
change for the beggar,
offered him verses in

coin stead; in reply he
refused a jingle about
grandma and her re-use

of plastic bags, made a
demand for the harder
currency, broken word.

***

Poem-A-Day: Something You Write In Response to a Friend’s Social Media Post

Okay, time for something slightly different today. We’re going to allow ourselves to be derivative for a moment — but in a good way.

Have you ever composed a poem in the style of someone else’s? Or have you ever composed a poem in response to someone else’s social media post? Have you ever done both of those at the same time because it was funny?

I have.

A while back, my friend Brian posted on Le Book of Face that he shouldn’t be allowed to buy pears anymore because they just rot in his fridge.

Even though they weren’t plums (it was February), obviously, what is that post of his going to make me think of? William Carlos Williams. OF COURSE. What else?

So I commented with the following, which made me laugh even if no one else did.

***

Poem for Brian

This is just to say
I have wasted the pears
that you bought
and which you probably hoped
I would find delicious.

Forgive me.
They were so ripe,
so bulbous and charming,
and I let them rot.
I don’t deserve them.

I should eat nothing but
lima beans and kale for a week.

***

Clearly this poem is Not High Art. It’s not even really art at all. But it was quick and amusing (to a small audience) and helped my sleepy morning brain make connections that did matter.

I think sometimes we can use poetry in this way. Too often I see students feel intimidated by poetry, as if it doesn’t count if it isn’t brilliant. And poetry has become something of a niche market in our culture, at least as compared to some others. I don’t want poetry to be that way, though. The more esoteric it gets, the less it matters. In an effort to counteract that, I think everyone should try to write a poem for no particularly inspired reason now and then.

And if people do it enough, I really believe that eventually, genuinely good poetry will start coming out of them.

So right now I’m offering you a challenge. Go find a friend’s social media post, and then write a quick poem in response. Then post it here in the comments. You don’t even have to include the post which made you think of it. In fact, maybe that’s better. Don’t think too hard about it, and don’t be afraid to be derivative. (Just let us know whom you’re riffing off of when you post.)

Please proceed.

Author Event This Weekend

Hey there.  🙂  For any of you in the Houston-and-surrounding-areas area this weekend, I’ll be appearing on Saturday at BrazCon, which is a book festival and comic con aimed largely at the YA set but really open and friendly to all ages. It’s a free event, happening all day. I’ll be speaking on two panels and signing books, so please come by if you’re around and say hello!

Click on this link to see more about the event, including author and artist lists and a full programming schedule. Spoiler alert: there’s a LOT to see and do here! In addition to a veritable slew of authors (myself included), you’ll find workshops on writing and drawing (with Mark Kistler, no less!), a cosplay contest, anime, video and card gaming, fandom paraphernalia (including, if I understand correctly, Daniel Radcliffe’s wand he used when he played Harry Potter in the films), and Houston’s Quidditch team. Plus Star Wars. And Doctor Who. And more I haven’t listed here. Check out their website for further details.

Sounds pretty fabulous to me. I hope to see you there!

The Moss Wood Writing Retreats

Back in June of last year I had the extraordinary experience of attending my first-ever real writing retreat, Moss Wood in Cape Rosier, Maine. From a Wednesday to a Sunday during one glorious week I escaped the heat of Texas, trading it for the jacket-worthy chill of Penobscot Bay.

The Moss Wood Retreat occurs in a house right on the water, above a pebble beach and backed up by a forested hill whose spongy ground sinks beneath your shoes when you go for a hike.

The ground looks hard, but the forest floor gave way just as much as the bright green moss suggests.

 

The house is generously sized, with an inviting living area warmed by a stove furnace and a large, furnished, screened-in porch overlooking the water. The upstairs boasts several bedrooms and a bathroom for the writers attending the retreat. As soon as I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and went up to my room, I was arrested by the stunning view from my bedroom windows, which lined an entire wall. I was not in the big city any longer, which should have been obvious, but for someone like me who hardly ever gets out into nature enough, it took me a while to fully appreciate the tectonic shift in my body as I adjusted to my new environment.

I think I must have stared out the window for fifteen minutes when I first arrived, just listening to the water from the second story as it lapped at the pebble beach below the house.

 

The retreat leader the week I attended was Gregory Maguire, one of my favorite authors and an extremely gracious man.

Selfie with Gregory Maguire, author of many, many excellent books, including the Wicked series, Lost, and his newest, Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker.

 

There were seven other writers there, including myself and Moss Wood’s director, Patricia McMahon, and assistant director, Conor McCarthy. Each day and evening offered our group hours of high-level conversation about literature, narrative craft, our own individual journeys as writers. And the attendees were an excellent mix of published and competent authors. We workshopped, we shared, we wrote new material. I came away inspired, validated in my work but also enriched by what I’d learned, ready to grow.

Selfie with Patricia McMahon, Moss Wood’s director and the author of so many wonderful books for children, including Just Add One Chinese Sister (co-written with Conor McCarthy), One Belfast Boy, and The Freaky Joe Club Mysteries.

 

The setting at Moss Wood offers tremendous opportunity for indulging in the natural world for those who are interested. If I wanted to spend all my downtime hours working away on a manuscript, I had the full support of everyone there, and there were times when I did this. But the siren call of kayaking on the bay and hiking the hill with my fellow writers snagged my attention, too, and I loved every minute!

The view from the shaded pebble beach on a clear day, where we collected seashells and unusual rocks.

 

About half the time we had spectacular weather, cool and sunny and relaxing. The other half the time, we had foggy days and sometimes cold rain — and I loved this too. The difference in temperatures between what I had left behind in Houston and what Maine was giving us could be measured in dozens of degrees. It was my favorite kind of weather, no matter the weather, all week. I loved the novelty of needing a sweater and a scarf on a mid-June afternoon!

This was the view from my room on the morning I woke up to fog. The horizon seemed to have vanished, as if swallowed up by The Nothing. It rained some that day but cleared up enough for kayaking later.

 

At night, the view from my bedroom window was a void, the darkest expanse I could imagine, with no lights to penetrate the landscape. And while there were stars aplenty when the clouds dissipated, I couldn’t really even see them well through my window screens. One evening, around 11:30, as I puttered around getting ready for bed, I happened to notice a fiery orange light across the bay. I wondered if one of the houses down the reach had turned on a strange floodlight or something. It was odd and, in the unfamiliar, abject quiet of a near-sleeping house, disturbing. I speculated on what it might be, each product of my overactive imagination slightly more unsettling than the last. As I watched the horizon, it occurred to me the light couldn’t be a massive flame because it was stable — but it was growing.

A few minutes later I realized this light was the moon, a burnished copper bowl rising like a cheshire smile from the water, its visible half so breathtaking and enormous that I couldn’t stop watching it glide upward. The next morning at breakfast, I mentioned this to my colleagues, and one new friend, Elizabeth, said that sounded like something she’d love to see. So I checked my phone for what time the moon was scheduled to rise that night, and we hoped for clear skies. She said to come to her room a few minutes before, and if she was still awake, she’d join me.

At the right time, I went across the hall and saw the light was on under her door and knocked softly. She came over and we watched the moon together, observing as it heaved itself silently from the invisible water and dripped its reflection back down. It was a profound sight. Elizabeth, who lives in Manhattan, can’t see the moon from her apartment, and I just love gazing at the moon when it’s so low to the horizon, enormous and gold and close enough to float up into the sky while we watch. This isn’t something I can see very often in my city, either, as flat and clogged by buildings as my own landscape is.

 

Selfie with Elizabeth Lim on the last day of the retreat. Her new book Reflection: A Twisted Tale, comes out March 27th.

 

Going to Moss Wood was about more than just making new friends and colleagues, although it was definitely that, too. Having time to engage in the art and practice of writing — and in the business of writing — is more than a challenge from August through May due to the intense and demanding pace of life as a full-time high school teacher. Not being able to do my own writing enough during the school year is not only detrimental to my mental health, it hampers my ability to be creative in the classroom. All of the classes I teach are either writing classes specifically or have a very heavy writing component, and the more I work to improve my own writing skills, the more effective a teacher of writing I am. I have seen this circumstance play out frequently over the last twenty years of my career in education.

The Moss Wood Writing Retreat was a generative, nurturing experience, and a marvelous escape from the daily minutiae which seems to dominate my life. Although I missed my family very much — and will be forever grateful for their support of my going — I think the last time I didn’t have to worry about the constant barrage of household tasks and parenting obligations for so many days at a time was my and Aaron’s honeymoon, which happened some time around the turn of the century. So it was nice to get away for a bit and do something radical just to care for my own creative self. In fact, it wasn’t until I had been at Moss Wood for a couple of days that I realized this is what I had done. (I pushed away the mom guilt by reminding myself how important it is to be a good role model for my kids, a woman who doesn’t constantly put herself last. My therapist would have been proud.)

One of the things I appreciated most about being at Moss Wood — and understand, there were many things to love about it — was that I felt intellectually and creatively nourished. Here I was, in an idyllic setting for five days with a small party of similarly passionate writers, with no other obligations than to write, to talk and think about writing, to enjoy my surroundings, and to eat delicious and lovingly prepared food. (And oh my goodness, the cuisine was amazing. I still miss it!) Attending Moss Wood made me feel like a version of my best self. And as happy as I was to get back home to my family, I could have stayed at the retreat for several more days, too, maybe just to kayak once more or feel the cold wind after lunch or finish writing a short story I began while I was there.

As you plan out this year, if you are a writer, consider Moss Wood. In my perfect world, I would snag all my best writing friends and head up there every summer. In fact, I haven’t given up that ambition.

Ah, well. Maybe one day.