Thursday, November 19, 2015

**Poem: "Imperfections" **

Even in daylight use
black mascara liberally,
wear fresh stockings
when you can, continue
to play gently with  the
faults of others.

The point is to keep on living,
to know we all reside within
our consequences.
You’re the one I can be
imperfect with,
share the daily news with,
curl my legs around in sleep.
Coffee from unscrubbed urns,
box wine served in well-
worn carafes, we entertain
ourselves with guitars,
with words and gestures.
Your quiet penance is
spending your life with me.

Memory of season
rises Ashokan blue
in your hard eyes,
then fades, quickly submerged.
Moustache flecked with
some regret and grey,
recorded in your humble
chin are motel birthday
celebrations, after school
detours, misguided teddies.

Your freshly pressed persona—
antique shop? Goodwill?—
narrow tie, somebody’s tie tack,
white button-down dreams--
For love you have been stupid, too.
I find your imperfections
sexy, a powerful attraction
to your stumbling, natural life.

CAR  5/8/10

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Winning" Poems & How They Get That Way

I attended a memorial for my friend Dan Schmidt last week. Among his many excellent qualities, Dan had a knack for focusing on the core essence of a person. He looked past the superficial details that might distract the rest of us, and connected directly with everyone's true self. He shared sincere joy, caring and grief with all he came into contact with, and remembered the details, too. I was of course stricken personally by his passing, but almost immediately realized the greater loss-- to all his friends, his birth family, and the community he adopted so many years ago as family.

And what does this have to do with poetry? Well, the day after the memorial, I attended the annual meeting of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild, and as part of the proceedings, the awards for the 2015 Poetry Contest were presented. As one of the judges, I felt an obligation to explain a bit about what I look for in a "winning" poem. "Winning," is a relative term, and on any given day I could have picked three other poems as winners. In the right frame of mind, I might even have challenged my fellow judge Howard Kogan to a duel to defend his choices. But, with the understanding that being a "winner" is a fleeting and subjective state, I offered a peek into the workings of my process.

Unlike my friend Dan, I am often distracted, by the presence of overused words in poetry-- "moon," "love," "soul," are just three of the words that cause me to be on guard. They are extremely powerful images, which is why they have been so frequently used. They can also indicate a lazy poet who chooses an image that s/he knows we are all familiar with instead of describing something completely, or with fresh language. If someone can write a poem with the word "rose," in it and make it sound new, more power to them. It's a tremendous goal that few can achieve these days.

What I look for in a strong poem isn't necessarily perfect craftsmanship. Forms are more of a pastime to me these days than a legitimate structure that enhances the effectiveness of the poem. Then there are all the grammatical bugaboos that can be distracting if you've been cursed with a solid education in the illogical details. These things can be gently corrected by an editor who can sense the gold within the straw.

What cannot be added is truth, honesty, passion. Poems are written for many reasons, and not always noble ones. Ego, revenge, and fear have often been the impetus for a poem. For me, the most powerful poems are written because the poet can do nothing but write. This compulsion is obvious in the work. It pulses and purrs with an unseen energy that is undeniable.

An added bonus is if the poet expresses themselves in unique language, fresh imagery. Being a bit on the lazy side myself, I find the easiest way to do this is to write the words down that come to you, not the words you've heard other poets use. Don't be afraid of writing in your own voice. It's the only one worth using, and really, the one the world wants to hear.

If you're wondering, no, I haven't written a poem about Dan yet. A few images have been kicking around the back of my brain. When I do (and let's face it, I will), it may not be the best poem ever written. But my intentions will be sincere. I owe Dan at least that much, and so much more.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How I Learned to Love (and Loath) Open Mics

     Second to mailing (and now emailing) your poems out to an invisible editor or editors, the best way to share your work with others is to read at an open mic. I cannot remember the first one I went to. I have written poems since elementary school, but I was slow in assuming the persona of a "poet." In high school I was on the staff of our fine literary magazine, Pegasus, and wasn't shy about expressing my misgivings about submitted work. When it came time to present something of my own, though, I always had a friend read it aloud for me. Poetry was too sacred, too personal an exposure for me to offer up without fear.

    When I went away to college, I continued to write, and for a short time even joined the literary magazine staff there, which had a tendency to dissolve and reconfigure itself semester after semester. I  was becoming more comfortable, more confident about my poems, and began to value them as my chosen mode of artistic expression as well as cheap therapy. I wrote my way through a difficult marriage and divorce, all the way to independence and sanity of a kind.

    After college, I saw an ad in the Shadwrapper (the local newspaper) for a poetry group that met twice a month at the nearby Stone Ridge Library. The Stone Ridge Poetry Society, founded by Shirley Powell, was my first adventure in poetry outside of academia. I made friends that are still friends thirty years later. Meetings combined workshopping poems with one or two featured readers. It was probably here, in the cozy living room-like space where the group met, that I had my first feature.

    Woodstock, the REAL Woodstock, New York had always been a welcoming place for artists of all levels of accomplishment. The open mic at the Tinker Street Cafe', hosted by Dean Schambach, was a challenging atmosphere for a twenty-something female, let alone a poet. There was alcohol, there were sometime fisticuffs. Dean was and is a contentious character with both champions and enemies. I myself had nothing but the most genial interactions with "Gunga Dean," as he is sometimes known by the locals because of his stirring rendition of Kipling's classic poem. Hecklers at the bar were something else again, but I still consider it a personal accomplishment to have survived the readings at the Tinker Street Cafe' relatively unscathed.

    One of the highlights of living in Albany was the longtime open mic hosted by Tom Natell at the legendary QE2, now both departed. I sometimes think I should have spent more of my student loan there instead of on tuition, but what's done is done. Since then, I have spent a lot of time commuting back and forth between The Emerald City and the Hudson Valley for readings there. There is an attitude of respect that rarely wavers-- for the audience, for one's own work-- that I find to be rarely matched. Readers don't often take advantage of the mic, or apologize in advance for the work they're about to impose on you. Time limits are clear and rarely violated.

    When my Roommate and I connected, I was running from one open mic to another almost every night of the week, and hosting an annual event called The Sylvia Plath Bake-Off, which at its height attracted 50 or more attendees in a single evening. Since that time, I have become more particular about which readings I attend. If a reading is poorly managed, if egos are allowed to run amok and hog the mic, if the open mic list is either endless or absurdly restricted, I will probably not be back soon. And I may or may not be missed. I'm OK with that.

    Unlike other artists, poets can be reasonably certain that there is no "Big Time" level of achievement for them to aspire to. It's one of the things I like about being a poet. It's a sort of exclusive club that, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, few would want to be a member of. But when all have gathered to share work, philosophies, secret details they may never tell their partners or families, and when they are sincere, I feel privileged to be in their presence. The Internet can at times echo some of that intimacy, but it's not there yet. The Open Mic, at its best, has yet to be equaled in the age of chat rooms and ezines.

Friday, November 6, 2015

**Poem: "Chances"**


The rest of the world has lived like this for years.
We only begin to see the cobwebs on the beams,
smell smoke of our own flesh, a bomb on every corner,
and DVD collections do nothing to preserve the season.

Tonight my big chance has to do with taking my ponytail down
instead of securing an orderly stripe
down my itchy back, no brush in the morning,
after banana, prior to toast.
I leave it for him to plait into knots of love,
distrust and the idle flies of memory
that buzz our bed.

Nat King Cole is not for me on the stereo downstairs.
It is a lesson for his children, sleeping on couches,
on what a Negro used to be in a world of
picket fence pearls and stay-by-night Moms,
Dads in freshly pressed slacks, a fire on every corner,
perchance for them to sleep and to wake,
Pokemon purged from their ten-year old heads.

In the same morning, my head a nest of indiscretion,
foggy acrobatics in the raw August row,
they all return to home,
his curls, my love's grey curls,
unbattered by my ineffective hands.

CAR  8/23/04

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Solo or Posse?: Workshops, Groups & Creative Writing

At this point I have been writing for about 40 years. Not professionally of course, although some of those years have been spent posing as a journalist, editor and feature writer. Growing up, I did a little bit of everything-- drawing, writing, crafting. I still crochet, drawing has pretty much fallen by the wayside, but writing is the art that has stuck with me, to me. At last count, I have been a featured reader or part of a featured group of readers over 75 times, and had close to 100 poems published from here to there in that same time. I have spent a lot of time staring at my own work, and that can skew one's perspective after a while.

When I first began to write, the only revising I would do was for grammatical or punctuation errors. If I felt I hadn't quite nailed it, I would abandon the topic and move on to the next poem. I wrote quickly, and my poems were short, rarely a complete page. Over the decades, my method of working has changed considerably. I am all about the rambling rough draft, and always by hand. I make changes during the first typing, then print that out to make additions and deletions, again by hand. I sometimes write up long verses to insert, elaborating on a point when it seems like expansion would benefit the poem. I have also become a ruthless cutter. I have begun to leave out whole verses, even while I'm reading it aloud, editing as I go along if I begin to feel, on hearing it, that I've gone off track. I am now a firm follower of TS Elliot's maxim that poems are never finished, "only abandoned." Amen.

I have participated in a number of classes and workshops over the years as well, most recently the Goat Hill Poets, currently based in Woodstock, NY. This is a group that grew out of a couple of informal sessions I hosted at my own home, and abandoned, until another poet decided he was getting so much out of them that he offered to have people meet at his place. These days, the Goat Hill Poets are as much a performance group as a workshop, and do one or two staged readings a year at Hudson Valley venues. The current leader has high aspirations for the group that I have never been clear about. Many times I feel that reading is almost a necessary evil, a way to communicate with your poems efficiently and personally, and certainly much more satisfying than tossing them in the mail or over the great black galaxy of the Internet. I am always anxious and cranky before a reading, especially if I think too much about it. But I get through it every time, and often enjoy the interaction of the moment, and sometimes even "performing".

But my personal goal has never been to mess around too much with presentation. I made a choice at some point to concentrate more on writing than theatricals, and it fits my temperament. I am relaxed in my selected environs, not so much when I'm trying to be anything but myself. I can read on stage, but movement, props, costumes throw me off. When I was in high school, I was too shy to read my own poems at the Creative Writing Club's meetings, and asked friends to read for me. I've worked hard at just being myself, and don't have much energy beyond that effort to add a soft shoe to the act.

I have gained so much from participating in groups and classes, but at this point, I need to extend my hard won self-confidence to my own writing. There is a dangerous loop one can get caught up in where a poem isn't "finished" until you run it through the workshop ringer. I have stepped back from that compulsion, and it is refreshing to use what I've learned to do the work myself. The frustrations, the accomplishments, they are all mine now. With the online poetry communities now available to me, the Internet galaxy has brightened considerably.  I may even go back to facilitating my own RANDOM WRITING workshops, if the space is right and the interest is there. But I think I'll leave the groups and the grand operas to others. I need to try out a climb on my own.

Friday, October 30, 2015

**Poem: Halloween, Poughkeepsie**

Halloween, Poughkeepsie

Leaping North Clover in a single bound,
Orion my tormentor is back,
flashing his dainty diamond ankle
over the failing vines next door,
smelling of old jam and wasted leaves,

leaping over brick and brawn,
candlestick phone poles,
collegiate headlights,
neon logos tattooing the dark.

Orion my tormentor is back
to bump the gooses up,
turn sunsets to fiery teas,
bundle my velvet in a
cloak of impatience,
huddle a swaddle of snap
around bare ruby feet.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Time To Write, Time To Live

    All writers struggle with balance. As a poet, I generally don't need long stretches of time for actual composition of poems, but I can benefit from an hour or two every day or so for "secretarial" duties. Lately though, I seem to require being alone in the house to get anything done. I bought my Roommate headphones so that in our tiny, open house I can do my thing while he watches "The Andy Griffith Show" or "The Walking Dead" without disturbing me. He is very accommodating, although half-jokingly complains about time I spend at my desk, but with a full-time job and limited waking hours, I have to make choices. Often even this kind of extreme cooperation doesn't seem to be enough.

    I have recommitted (again) to the gym and to a weekly yoga class right around the corner, after blowing off everything for the last several months (and consequently not fitting into my jeans anymore), so that is another bit of time unavailable for art. I have some success in the morning, if I can be at my desk by 6:15 a.m. or so. I am able to get in 30 to 45 minutes of writing, or typing up of longhand first drafts. But sometimes mornings don't work out the way I plan.

    I didn't realize how much slacking off affects how well I feel. My joints and tendons are entering the second half of their first century, and without constant attention, they do complain. I have always existed mainly in my head, but I realize now that in order to accomplish what I would like to, I need to maintain my body as a reasonably fit vehicle for my brain. I will never be a runner or a runway model. I already have Diva locked up, because physical beauty is not a major qualification for that title. But fitness and the ability to spend what time I have writing are, regrettably, permanently intertwined.

    Oddly, I can find the solitude I seem to require in a room full of strangers. The library is a particularly comfortable location, when I don't run into old acquaintances I'd rather not see. But when I can settle into my favorite corner desk, I am good for 2 or 3 solid hours of writing, if my schedule allows.  This is not to say that my Roommate actively discourages me from writing in the house, by the way. My ex-husband's horrific behavior comes to mind, where he would read my poems while I was at work (he worked nights), and use the contents to accuse me yet again of multiple infidelities, more than most humans have the stamina for, even in their 20s. My Roommate is nothing like that. In fact, I know him to be a creative soul himself.

    Ultimately, I don't think there is one-solution-fits-all answer. My mood changes. My commitments change. The worth of my efforts changes. I usually think it is very important for me to finish all the projects I've started before I die. Then there are times when what I do, what we all do, matters not a bit. Sort of a 'dust in the wind' view, acknowledging the impermanence all around us, including our stories. Is the value in the effort? In the sharing now?

Jim Sugrue › Portfolio › Fall in the Hudson Valley
(photo courtesy Jim Sugrue)