The Truth of the Matter Is

The truth of the matter is fleeting.  The truth is I don’t know.  And this why I normally avoid writing that purports to know, like essays and stories.

I just finished an essay I have been working on for about a year. (In writing time, that is not so long.)

Now it is done and undone.

With creative non-fiction it feels as though as soon as it is done it is false.  That slice of moment of the self that was writing it is gone.

This is true for poetry, but somehow poetry seems okay with being an artifact of the moment, like peeling off a layer of skin, maybe from your thumb where you can spare some thickness of skin, and placing it in a collage of other items, framing it for viewing (no glass as the reader needs to be able to touch and smell the objects) and that is all it intends to be … a slice of a moment to remind us to see those slices.

An essay, however, asserts itself, with all those complete sentences and direct tellings and the bravado of saying, “I know something, so listen.”

A poem says, “I don’t know, so try to figure it out with me.”

See, that is already false.  I can already think of one argument of how that is not true: 1. Writing this essay was necessary to work out my own obstacle, as if I needed to be given permission to be freer and more joyful.   Another is:  2.the wonderfully lyrical essays of Jacqui Morton, who is able to transcend form and invite us in to share her figuring out living (she does a damn good job of it).

So, I wrote this essay, which may or may not hold true, but it holds something that is important to me, so tonight, I am going to send it out into the world because maybe it holds something that someone needs to hear.


Sharon Venezio, Guest Blogger: Writing Process Blog Tour

Since I tagged Sharon Venezio in this writing process blog tour when she does not have a blog, I invited her to guest blog here.

First,  a recap of what the writing process blog tour is:

A writer answers a few questions about how and why and what they write, and then they ask a pal or three to do the same, and as the weeks go by, more and more of us share our precious secrets about the creative process, until eventually, probably in like mid-September, we all simultaneously self-actualize.

Here are her answers to the questions.

What are you working on?

Faith. I’m working on having faith that I will find my way back to a writing practice. After my first book came out all of my creative energy disappeared. Poof. It went silent. That might not be entirely true, but any poem that tried to worm through the thick fallowness got stifled by my overcritical internal editor. I didn’t write for many months, perhaps even half a year, and when a poem did finally surface it sounded too familiar and I’d beat myself up over it. I wanted a new voice for the next manuscript. I believe a writer’s voice is fluid, not something we arrive at, yet I still kept getting hung up on the idea of voice within my new poems. I felt I was writing the same poem I’ve been writing for a decade, the same emotion turned over and over, the same book. So writing became a bit of a battle of wills. I often think of Louise Gluck who has long stretches of silence between books, sometimes lasting seven or more years, and Richard Siken, author of Crush, who, in a recent interview, said he turned to painting after his first book because he couldn’t use the medium of words anymore (his second book is forthcoming, ten years later). Ocean Vuong writes about preferring the practice of letting a poem gestate, not pushing his writing into a forced daily practice, letting poems drift within us and surface at will. There are many different ways to approach the practice of writing and I don’t believe it’s one-size-fits-all, though I do believe regular practice is a great way to continually evolve and be a master of the craft, but it’s something I’ve always struggled with. I had many moments where I feared I had nothing left to say, that my first book wrote it all out and there’s nothing left. But I decided to let it go, to simply have faith that things are happening within me, preparing for a new season. Nature always restores me, so I look toward nature to remind me that everything is cyclical, even this. Most all of the poems I’ve written in the past year are likely not going to end up in my second manuscript, but I have a handful that seem to be talking to each other, and this is the thread I am following, still not sure exactly what it is, but I have a sensation of what it is, a soft focus of meaning. I’m not writing daily, but I am trying to get back to a regular practice, and like most people, I have to find the space amongst all the other daily responsibilities. And even though I’m not writing daily, I read poetry regularly and still feel its presence on a daily basis, even if it’s just a nagging voice in the back of my mind. But really I believe poetry goes beyond the writing, too, and we can tap into it in different ways. Perhaps these cycles of non-writing are as essential as the cycles of writing. I suspect that entering into a second manuscript is the difficult part, but once I’m in it, once it’s latched itself inside me, there will be a return of that thing, that pull, that energy. Right now I’m listening and trying to be patient.


How does your work differ from others of its genre?

This is a tough question. That’s what we want in poetry, isn’t it, to approach a subject, even a common one, with a unique voice (there’s that word again). For me, it all comes down to language. It’s not so much what we say but how we say it. I don’t know what makes me unique, if anything, but I strive to find a balance between narrative and abstraction and I hope to land in a place that can be a middle ground between these two things. I don’t think language poetry and narrative poetry need to be enemies. My first book had sections that were quite different in tone and style. I also love lyric, and even though it doesn’t seem very popular these days, I can’t help but return to it again and again.


Why do you write what you write?

I write poetry and have never really attempted any other genre. The only other genre I may attempt at some point is the essay, but I don’t imagine venturing anywhere else. I also have a very short attention span. When I was younger I read a ton of literature and philosophy, but I think my brain cells are fading and I no longer have the patience for some of the longer, dense stuff I used to read. But mainly poetry appeals to me because of how it uses language, how I feel when I’ve just read a great poem, the way something shifts inside and the whole world is slightly atilt. I’m always struck by how dramatic people are when they talk about poetry, as if it has the power to alter reality, and sometimes that seems absurd, but other times I know it to be true. When I’ve read a great poem I feel that everything inside has been burst open, sparked. Besides falling in love, there’s not much else that can do that to me. Maybe that’s it – every time I read a great poem, I fall in love. Writing takes me outside of myself (strangely, because it also requires such intense inward focus) and I like things that take me out of my own head.


How does your writing process work?

My writing process is a bit noncompliant. I wish I had it in me to write the way Cherrie Moraga urged women to write – on the bus, while doing laundry, while sweeping the floor, while on the job, to hear the words chanting in the body, but, it seems I do need a room of my own in order to really write, and I’m privileged enough to have that space. I suppose if I didn’t have that I would learn to write in coffee shops or wherever I had a free moment. But I have trouble with distraction and can’t really get deep into writing unless I am alone, even if that just means sitting alone in another room. I do sometimes write with poet friends, but that usually ends up being notes for writing, research, or revision; I rarely get much creative writing done in that context. I really need silence, both external and internal, to write, and when I’m writing in a group I can’t quite access what I need to get deep into a poem. This isn’t always true, but often. I remember writing a poem while at a conference, sitting in a very crowded space, and that poem ended up in my book, so it does happen. What I’ve learned helps me is to link physical movement with writing, so I try to write after doing yoga or other forms of movement that tend to clear my mind and silence all the typical distractions. I believe meditation serves the same purpose, but I’m not a big meditator in the typical sense. After all procrastination has been achieved, I read poems to help me get into the language of poetry and I write on my laptop while at my desk or kitchen table. I do a lot of driving for work so my car is an extension of my home, and I tend to write in my car a lot. Sometimes I will get lines and then sit down to see how they fit together and what they want to say, other times I write a poem straight through in one sitting and return to it over the course of a week for revision, then possibly more revision after getting feedback. I rarely spend more than a few weeks on a poem, for better or worse. Again, I think it has to do with attention. I tend to want to move on. I have friends who awake in the middle of the night with a poem pouring out of them, but my process is much more painstaking and usually involves pliers. It’s an evolving process and I have a long way to go.


Who is next?

Thank you to Lisa Cheby for asking me to take part in this blog tour and for generously posting my reply on her blog.  ​I am tagging Martina Reisz Newberry, a talented writer who recently released a book of poems.

Writing Process Blog Tour

A few weeks ago, the brave, lyrical, and all-around fabulous essayist/poet/dear friend, Jacqui Morton, tagged me to continue this tour.  I am sure she thought since I was on summer vacation I would promptly meet the one week deadline to post, but without a daily schedule I lost track days and weeks.  I also have this other graduate program (MLIS) and important vacation obligations to meet, like jet skiing with my sister and brother-in-law and visiting my nephew in Orlando.

What is a blog tour?  Here are the instructions that were passed on to me:

“A writer answers a few questions about how and why and what they write, and then they ask a pal or three to do the same, and as the weeks go by, more and more of us share our precious secrets about the creative process, until eventually, probably in like mid-September, we all simultaneously self-actualize.

Indeed, weeks have gone by.  I can’t wait for mid-September.  In the meantime, here what I do to justify calling myself a poet/writer.

1.  What are you working on?

I am working on the final touches to my chapbook manuscript, Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, due out in November from Dancing Girl Press.  I am also working on new poems (less love lessons and more political) to go along with the love lessons to make a full-length manuscript of poems all somehow filtered through Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I also have an essay I am working on, which I may or may not decide to share publicly.   Also part of the writing work, the end of the writing process, is trying to get my first manuscript published.  Finally, there are some miscellaneous newer poems from April’s poem-a-day challenge that at least give me hope I will have new projects in the future.

2.  How does your work differ from others of its genre?

It is very difficult for me to be objective about my work in this way.  I would say that, looking at both manuscripts, the style and voice are quite different, as are the themes and subject matter, so maybe the range of my work is something that is different.  My first book (yet to find a publisher) is much more personal, about my heritage and family, about illness and death and identity.  The Buffy poems are much more bold and witty (or so I like to think, perhaps), utilizing syntax, slang, and imagery from the show.  They voice is less easy to pin down which reflects the looser form (the first book contains more formal poems).  Though I often will read poems years later and catch myself in my own delusion, perhaps something that makes my work different is its honesty, or at least the sincerity of the struggle to be honest, to get to the marrow of the matter (whatever that matter is).

3.  Why do you write what you write?

Usually I don’t know really know.  Later, after I wrote it, it is because I needed to — I needed to release it, understand it, figure it out, hold up the beauty of it — or the horror of it — whatever it is.   That said, there is a lot that is written that no one will ever see.  Which makes it sound salacious, but really, when I die, it is more likely if anyone looks at it the hard drive will be thrown in the trash that with everything else no one can figure out why I saved.  I am okay with that.

4. How does your writing process work?

To some extent, I honestly do not know.  I am big on revising and not so great with starting new poems, so when I look at poems that are published or that I am working on now, sometimes I don’t know how they started.   Again, it goes back to that need to work something out or capture the awe or awfulness of something, to illuminate or transform it.    Since, like with most writers, writing is what happens between all the other obligations of being a human (work, other studies, interacting with others, trying to be healthy and interact with the world around me), I find the writing process works best when it becomes part of the routine, when I do not “wait” for inspiration, but summons it by showing up regularly.  Starting about January of 2014, to my own shock, I became the writer who got up before dawn to write before the rest of the day started.  It is only about 45 minutes or an hour, but it is daily and it is done for the day.  It worked really well, but ironically, since summer break started, I stopped getting up early and the writing has been more sporadic.  Now I am traveling and I don’t get writing done when I travel.  I also spent the last two Aprils doing the poem-a-day challenge which generated some interesting new work and opened new directions in voice/style/subject matter using various prompts (so I guess prompts are a stimulus for new poetry).  I will say, regarding prompts, I am not good at following the rules and usually like to combine two so they don’t sound like a-poem-from-a-prompt.  And also so I can write what I want and how I want, but a prompt gives an edge to leverage against when starting out from scratch.  The process is like this response — you set a destination to get you on the road, but end up where you least expected.

I now pass this on two women I admire greatly as writers, women who inspire, support, challenge, and astound me:  Tisha Reichle and Sharon Venezio.  I am also going to pass this on to my co-conspirator, the talented and prolific, Ashley Perez.  Like me, they may not meet the one week deadline, but I look forward to self-actualizing with them in September.   And read their work (and Jacqui’s).  Buy Sharon’s book (which I reviewed at The Rumpus) and follow Tisha so you can pre-order her book when it comes out.

Happy, National Poetry Month (not for April’s Fools)!

I have a group of poets who, once again, are attempting various forms of the National Poetry Month Poem-A-Day Challenge.   Some will do a poem a day, some will simply aim to write everyday.

For me, this is the time of year I turn to new prompts.  Here are some I found for the 2014 Challenge (and a few old favorites, perhaps):

Oulipost from Found Poetry Review

NaPoWritMo I might use this first one everyday … could be an interesting series.

Poetry Asides

Poetry Is Everything

WXW 30/30



The Next Big Thing

Author of  the memoir, Thinking Up a Hurricane, Martinique Stilwell, pass on The Next Big Thing baton to several in a women writers listserv we share.  This interlinked blog invites writers to answer questions about their latest book or next big thing:

What is your working title of your book?

The Pictures We’ll Never Print

Where did the idea come from for the book?

As a book of poems, the idea for the book was discovered as I put together my manuscript for my MFA.  I was shocked to realize had over 50 poems from my time in the program and before, mostly about my parents’ illnesses and deaths.  I found that when arranged in certain ways, I had been writing about excavating the questions I never got questions to about my personal history and  about figuring out who I am without the resistance of parents to push back against or to be that loving/nagging voice in your ear.   My mentor at the time, Doug Kearney, was key in teaching me how to create various stories through the sequencing of the poems.

I guess the idea for the poems came out of my grieving.  I started the MFA a year after my mother died.

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry.  Confessional, lyrical, some are formal and others are experimental.   It is a representation of the working out of identity.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My mother would be played by Shirley MacLaine, because my loved her and would want that.  My father by Javier Bardem, mainly so I could get a chance to meet him, but really, he, more than any other actor, can morph himself into anyone.  The I of the book would be portrayed by Holly Hunter because she could bring the right mix of strength and vulnerability.

Perhaps this will be the first poetry book made into a movie.  Has that been done?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

An orphaned 1st generation Hungarian-American sifts through the legacies of grief and illness to redefine herself.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

I am seeking a publisher by submitting to various poetry book contests and small presses.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I was just updating my acknowledgements page and the first poem from the manuscript to be published was three years ago.  I started many of the poems, or other versions of them, as my mother was dying and that was six years ago this weekend.

I’ve spent the last two summers in major revisions.  I really love revising, so likely, if I don’t find a publisher this summer, it may once again become a different story.  Just when I think I got it done, I surprise myself by writing a new poem or expanding poems or cutting poems.

But this asked about the first draft.  It is such its own living organism, I don’t know when the first draft came together.  Three years sounds about right.  Plus three years of revising.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

It feels like hubris to compare my work to the poets I so admire.  Moreover, the influences are so varied and subtle, it is difficult to untangle them. Poets I turned to in order to learn how to write about grief and hope include Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe (What the Living Do), and Terry Blackhawk (The Dropped Hand).  I also read a lot of fiction that inspired me to try to get to the root of experience and emotion, such as The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano and Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I started writing, just writing not this book necessarily, just before my mother died.  I wrote because I did not know what else to do and realized that the passion and the creative outlet I had been seeking much of my life is writing, specifically writing poetry.  This manuscript is a sort of artifact of processing loss (not just my mother’s death, but many losses left undigested) and falling in love, in this case, with writing.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Though many of the poems have been revised extensively, I think the collection of poems from such a vast period of my writing life reflects the arc of the book, as much as a poetry book might have an arc.  While there are themes and imagery that weaves the poems into a book, the forms and styles are quite varied.   It will either please or frustrate formalist and free-verse poets equally.   Hopefully it will open the readers’ own unhealed place of mourning and let them know that healing it is possible, though not easy.  Not that I have special insight into this realm of experience, but, like in a yoga class where a teacher asks you to consider a pose in a new way or from a new perspective and suddenly this pose you thought you knew and had mastered opens up in a new way, at once becoming more difficult and more liberating.


This post is something like tag or a relay race and probably has some special internet name I don’t know about (today I learned that FML means more than fix my lighthouse).   Read about the Next Big Thing for these talented writers:   Khadija Anderson and Heather Luby.

Wedding Season Begins (with poetry, of course)

This mornings prompt include an Epithalamium (a wedding poem) and a visitor poem.  I am discovering I like to combine prompts as one is not enough direction and form for me, but two create a challenge, a new world.  Kind of like thos 24-hr movies that give 5 parameters.  Anything less would be just like sitting down and writing from ‘inspiration.’  I have little of that lately.

A wedding poem.  My first thought was that God really loves to laugh at me, to mock me, to say something like “I hear you, Lisa, but I am not going to do what you want until it is my idea.”  Sounds all too familiar.   I wrote a poem where I am visiting my own wedding.   It is one of those where poetry seems to cross to far into thearapy and there (or maybe it is the confessional critics voice that I, particuarly as a woman writer, cannot purge completely from my head).

However, I remembered I wrote this poem.  I was the visitor at Khadija Anderson’s wedding (another fabulous poet) and wrote a wedding poem for her, her husband, and their lovely family.   I guess that means I can finish my coffee and continue on my roadtrip knowing day three poem is out.

You are a writer because you write

This is a dangerous assertion.   A political statement that “staggers” and “shuffles” and “dislocates,” just as do the poems of Doug Kearney, who asserted this truism about writing and writers at PSA’s Red, White, and Blue : Poets on Politics panel at the Hammer Museum.

Yes, says my writer self who feels guilty for not doing more than just writing (like this).  And, hell no, says my other writer self who knows how writing is not just writing, but work (like foregoing summer travel to hunker down and get the manuscript done).

Either way, it is a transformation, as Kearney, Prageeta Sharma, and Matthew Zapruder noted in their discussion of poetics and politics.

Poetry transforms the writer and the audience, even if that audience is just the writer.  So it is not just writing, but writing something that surprises you, the writer, surrendering to something other than LISTEN TO WHAT I WANT TO SAY.

For Kearney it’s a stagger and a shuffle, a throwing the audience off-balance, that achieves this transformation.

For Sharma, surprise comes through mocking the authoritative voice of the canon, of the paradox of creativity supported by the institution of academia.

It is not just politics and poetry, but the politics of poetry.

For Zapruder it is inescapable.  Poetry.  Politics.  It is Sappho writing the first lyric poems under a moon reflecting, on paper, her own thoughts and feelings (Zapruder’s image, not mine).

Poetry.  Confessions. Politics.

The poem as the only place where they could be themselves (Sharma and Zapruder).

But how can we be ourselves in the institution of academia and politics, in the public?

Particularly when the poetic self is so often not the self the institution hired or the public will like:  the anxiety, as Kearney pointed out, of autobiographical interpretation of each poem.

Is this what people will think of me?

Versus the poem as our own imaginative “danger room” where we can crash and fail and flail and be ourselves and not ourselves, as we need, to find that transformation.

Sharma, in talking about art in the institution of academia, called the poem a product that proves success.  More specifically, the public poem, the published poem, the poem published in the right journal.

If I am not being published (by the ‘right’ journals) or validated by an institution, can I continue to call myself a writer?  What do writers do besides write and teach writing?   If I leave behind teaching and the pursuit of teaching college, will I still be a writer?

I simply want the lightness and time to slip into that poetry mind more often, the space of Keats’ “negative capability” where paradox and contradiction exist, where I can stagger and shuffle and go into the danger room of thought.

Reentering that room after a long absence is scary:  did I lose my edge?  how out of shape am I? where to start training to regain ground?  and how, poetically, does one measure the regaining of ground?

Suddenly, the striving for a title or position that seems to fit the writer persona, the proper resume with the right publications seems secondary to the writing and the living.   I enter the danger room, pick up a word, and start with one rep, then two, then three . . .

Suddenly, I am a little be closer to being a Poet & Writer.