Category Archives: poetry

No Surrender: On writing retreats

Boardwalk leading down into the woods towards the falls

Clifty Falls State Park

A few years ago, I spent several summer days (a little less than a full week) at Clifty Falls State Park, working to finish a book-length poetry manuscript. This writing retreat was generously funded by an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission.

On the one hand, the retreat was a success. I got into a routine: breakfast, coffee, check in online, then dive into the manuscript for a few hours. When my head got too full of words, I’d go outside and tromp around in the woods for a bit. (On one jaunt I was tremendously startled by a wild turkey who happened to pop out of the shrubbery just as I walked past. Those things are HUGE! I think s/he was just as startled as I was…) And I came away with what felt like a finished manuscript.

Desk with papers all over it and coffee cup

Work in progress, Clifty Inn

On the other hand, the retreat was a failure, because that manuscript racked up a pretty good pile of rejection notes when I started submitting it to publishers. Sigh.

On the other other hand, it was a success, because once I’d put together that manuscript and felt “finished” with it, I was able to move on from those poems and began writing some that were very different from the ones I’d been writing for quite a while.

Since I don’t have that many hands, we’ll call that retreat … a partial success. I’m certainly glad I did it, and I learned a lot about putting together a manuscript that week too. I spent some of my time listening to three Springsteen albums I have always thought were masterpieces of sequencing, albums that have a definite storytelling/emotional arc – Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Tunnel of Love – and tried to figure out which of my poems made the most sense as my manuscript’s “Thunder Road.” Most importantly, I learned to settle down, center, and dive into the work in a way that felt really good.

When I read poems from my manuscript-allegedly-in-progress, “Chasing Angels,” last weekend – and as I prepared for that reading – I realized I hadn’t looked at that manuscript, or even thought about it much, in at least a year. I’d thought I might be ready to abandon it. But the poems felt alive to me again as I dug through them picking out which ones to read. It kind of surprised me. And I think I’m ready to pay attention to “Chasing Angels” again.

So… I’m planning another retreat. This one’s going to be more intense in some ways; I’m going in February, and I’m getting a cabin with (omg) NO INTERNET. (At Clifty Falls, I stayed in the inn, in a lovely room with a jacuzzi and internet.) I’ll be able to hike over to the lodge in the park with my iPad in tow and check email or whatever, and I might have a weak-ass 3G signal from the cabin – in Brown County I occasionally find a spot where I get 3G, but it’s not that widespread – so for the most part, getting connected will require a 10-15 minute tromp. Which isn’t that bad (not exactly roughing it, I realize) but for someone like me who pokes at whichever device is closest every five minutes or so, and checks Twitter and email on her phone last thing before falling asleep at night and first thing after waking up in the morning – it’s going to be a challenge. Poetry Unplugged. (Also known as: “If you want internet you’re gonna have to put on pants.”)

For some people, four days of near-solitude would be the challenge. And I know I’ll have moments when it’s too quiet and I can hear myself think too well. Mostly, I’ll miss the cats! I don’t have aloof, low-maintenance cats; all three of mine are usually right near me at any given moment, and usually if I’m sitting down at least one (sometimes two, occasionally three) will be on my lap. As I type this, in fact, I’ve got one sprawled across my legs, just on the other side of the laptop I’m typing on, purring up a storm. But I am used to solitude, and pretty comfortable with it. And if I really need to see another human being, I can go over to the lodge – I could even eat a meal or two in the restaurant there.

I’m not exactly going to be cut off from civilization – the cabin has electricity, heat, plumbing, a TV. There’s a wood stove (failed drafts probably make excellent kindling!) and a deck overlooking a wooded ravine. I have no idea what the weather will be like – it could be 50 degrees or it could be below zero – but if it’s at all reasonable, I will tromp around in the woods to clear my mind every now and then.

I might take a guitar, in case I am inspired to write any of the manuscript’s protagonist’s songs. (Here’s hoping I don’t have any nearby neighbors.) I will certainly take binoculars, as it’s not at all unlikely that I’ll see some wildlife – deer, raccoons, eagles, maybe even another turkey to scare the crap out of me. Mostly, though, the plan will be – once again – to emerge from the retreat with a “finished” manuscript in hand, ready to start sending out. It’s a little different this time, as I cobbled together a version of a manuscript some time ago. But that version is waaaaaay too long, and I’ve written a few more poems for it since then. My hope is that after being away from it for a while, I’ll be able to take a harder look and excise the weaker poems.

Anyway, it’s a few months away, but I am looking forward to it. I think it will challenge me, probably in ways that are as unexpected as a big-ass wild turkey jumping out from the underbrush. I’m not in a position to take a month-long residency at a fabulous place like Yaddo or McDowell, even if I thought I could get accepted there. I probably couldn’t even swing two weeks, given the realities of vacation time limitations and cat sitter bills. So I’m taking four days, and by golly I am going to make the most of it.

Onward!

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Setlist: First Sundays, 11/3/2013

autumn leaves
Despite an absolutely gorgeous autumn Sunday afternoon in Bloomington and the inevitable discombobulation that comes with the clocks having “fallen back” the night before, we had a nice little audience at Boxcar Books today for the First Sundays reading. I read a selection of poems from “Chasing Angels,” my manuscript-in-progress about a fictional rock musician; it was my first attempt to construct an entire setlist solely consisting of “Chasing Angels” poems and I was fairly happy with the narrative arc and the way the poems hung together.

I’d left the manuscript untouched for quite a while – a couple of years I guess – feeling frustrated and tired of it, and was pleasantly surprised when I dove back into it last night to find that I was interested in it again. Sometimes you have to let writing sit and marinate by itself for a while before working on it does anyone any good, you know? Now I’m thinking of getting it back out and fiddling with it some more; it’s way too long to send it out as it stands now, but hopefully with new perspective I’ll be able to ruthlessly yank out the poems that aren’t as strong. By spring 2014 I’d like to start sending it around. Don’t tell, y’all. It’ll be our little secret.

I’m also, because I enjoyed reading the poems so much today, having wacky ideas of constructing some kind of a semi-theatrical staged reading of a big chunk of the manuscript. I know, that’s crazy talk. It wouldn’t be that big a production – I certainly wouldn’t try to memorize it all, I’d have the pages in front of me – but with musical interludes here and there and some slides behind me and maybe some interesting lighting. I don’t know. I’m not necessarily the most dynamic of performers and I don’t know if I’d want to watch me on a stage for 45-60 minutes solid, even with multimedia and music and awesome boots on my feet and whatever… well… watch this space next year and see if anything develops!

Anyway, here’s what I read today (a 15 minute set):

  1. The Roar the Day After
  2. Sweet the Morning After
  3. The Smoke
  4. Curfew
  5. That Conversation
  6. First Earthquake

Many thanks to Nancy Long, the Bloomington Writers’ Guild, and Boxcar Books for hosting this monthly series!

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Useful Detours: D.A. Powell’s reading at Butler University

Sometimes roadblocks and road closures force you to detour in ways that turn out to be useful.

That isn’t a metaphor. Honest. So, I found out a while back that D.A. Powell would be reading in Butler University’s Visiting Writers Series, and knew I had to be there. Butler is on the north-ish side of Indianapolis, and since I drive like a little old lady, I always allow two hours to get there – it’s really not a bad drive at all, but far enough that I really have to want to go to a concert or a reading in order to make the effort. For a while there, I was driving an aging car that was actively trying to kill me (that’s an exaggeration, Mom) so the necessity of renting a car to get much of anywhere meant I got to places like Butler even less frequently – but now I have a sturdy reliable car, and I love driving, so yay for mini-road trips.

A few days ago, Indianapolis shut down two major thoroughfares through the city, I-65 and I-70, to do some major roadwork. For someone who lives 50-60 miles south of Indy I don’t actually spend that much time there, and I don’t know the roads all that well. So I puzzled over the detour maps for a while trying to figure out the best way to Butler, because of course my usual route is via I-65. Which was, you know, shut down. I decided the best thing would probably be to take I-465 about halfway around and then take 38th Street towards Butler, but between the construction sending people on all kinds of crazy detours and the fact that I would be getting into town around the tail end of rush hour (the reading was at 7:30 and hell if I was gonna be anywhere near late), I was afraid traffic would suck. So I allowed a full hour extra.

Traffic was fine, people. You wouldn’t even have known the construction was going on. I’m sure if I hadn’t planned ahead and had gotten into town only to find my exit closed I would have panicked, and if I’d tried to take back roads and cut through downtown or something I would have gotten lost (yes, I have a GPS; yes, I would have gotten lost anyway; I’m talented like that). But I was parked in the parking lot behind Clowes Hall at, um, 6:15 I think.

But then I sat in the car for a while poking at my phone, looking at Twitter and email and weather radar – and turns out if I’d left 45 minutes later, I would have been whomped on the way there by a badass thunderstorm, maybe even a couple of them. Wind, torrential rain, maybe even hail. I would have been cursing up a storm and hating my life. As it was, it sprinkled on me about ten drops as I walked from the car into the venue. So, go me. Hooray for detours and alternate routes!

D.A. Powell reading at Butler University podium

D.A. Powell reading at Butler University

The reading itself was, of course, fantastic. Powell read a couple of poems from Chronic (including the title poem, which knocks my socks off every time) and then the bulk of the reading was from his newest book, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys. As always, listening to the poems (and Doug is a terrific reader of his own work) made me consider the poems differently than just reading them on the page – it’s like when you hear a song live after listening to the studio version a bunch of times, how just a little bit of changed phrasing makes a line stand out in a way that you think “wow, was that line even in there before?” And of course it was there all along, but hearing it in the moment, it’s different.

I’ve taken a couple of summer workshops with Doug Powell and besides being a phenomenal poet (which anyone who’s up on their contemporary poetry already knows), he’s also one of those teachers who can change a poet’s life. The thing about his workshops is: they were terrifying. Because I got pushed hard enough to write past anyplace I’d written before, and to tackle terrifying material. And at the same time, he created a space of absolute support and safety within the workshop, which made it okay to be terrified. Does that make sense? It might sound crazy if you’re not a writer, maybe. It’s not like I run around trying to get terrified for fun. I don’t like scary movies, I’m not crazy about rollercoasters – but being pushed to one’s creative brink like that is fucking exhilarating.

I haven’t been writing lately, and thinking about it now, I think it’s because I have backed away from letting myself be terrified. To be honest, real life has been terrifying enough on several occasions in the past couple of years, and I haven’t felt any desire to step out of my safety zone  when I didn’t absolutely have to. It’s hard to write when your life is busy being literal.

But I need to quit that safety zone like the bad habit that it is. I need to get back on the verbal tightrope. I just do.

On the way home I turned on the SiriusXM “Soul Town” station, which gave me some Sly & the Family Stone, some Al Green, some Stylistics, some Gladys Knight, and so on. Along the way I pulled into a gas station and scribbled out about half a poem, then bought an ice cream sandwich and drove the rest of the way in the dark, words bumping around inside my head in a way that I have been missing lately. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.

Also, it occurs to me that maybe nobody should ever try to write more than half a poem. I pretty much only get in trouble when I try too hard to finish them. From now on, I write half-poems. Terrifying? You bet. And hooray for that.

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Setlist: 4th St. Festival, 8/30/2013

Fourth Street Festival t-shirt designI’m going to start using this blog to keep track of which poems I read at readings. Maybe it will be interesting to other folks, maybe not… we’ll see!

The Spoken Word Stage at this year’s Fourth Street Festival was a lot of fun; I especially enjoyed sharing the stage with Indiana’s current poet laureate (and former classmate from way back in undergrad days) Karen Kovacik, storyteller/movement artist (and former dorm-neighbor from way back in undergrad days) Nell Weatherwax, and local group Five Women Poets, of which I was a member for several years. In the “it’s the little things that count” department, one of the organizers thought to install a clock on one of the poles holding up the canopy, within sight of the microphone used by the readers. Super helpful, as I’ve become one of those awful people who relies on her cellphone to check the time instead of wearing a watch, which makes it a lot harder to discreetly check on how you’re doing for time as you read!

Anyway, my setlist, which clocked in at just about 25 minutes:

  1. What This Poem Will Do
  2. Ten Years
  3. It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Mortality
  4. Lucky
  5. Sleeping in Space
  6. The Roar the Day After
  7. Free Hot Breakfast, Free Dreams
  8. Seventeen/Forty-Seven: Darkness and Magic
  9. Relax with Song of the Whales
  10. O

 

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Cicada Summer

It’s not officially summer yet, meteorologically speaking. But here in Bloomington we’re a week into IU’s summer session, the Bloomington Speedway has begun its Friday-night whirring buzz (a sound I’ve associated with summer since childhood), and the landscape is green, green, lush and green. I call it summer.

Many of my East Coast friends are currently freaking out about the impending onslaught of Brood II cicadas. These are the 17-year dudes, so they’ve been burrowed underground since 1996. Cicadas are another thing I associate with childhood summers – both their sound and the brown shells they leave behind when they molt, along with the occasional shed wing, transparent and fascinating. Here in Indiana, our 17-year cicadas come from Brood X (that’s roman numeral ten, not X as in X-files); they last emerged in 2004. They don’t cause trouble really, though when they emerge in huge quantities you’ll see the tips of some tree branches turning brown and droopy – I remember this being fairly noticeable in ’04, though the damage didn’t last beyond that summer. Mostly they just make noise. It is a mating call, and it can be LOUD. (C’mon, the poor things have been waiting seventeen years and they only have a few weeks to live. You can’t blame them!)

cicada and cicada shell

Brood X cicada and shed skin / photo by the author

It’s also said that immediately after a major seventeen-year cicada emergence, editors of literary journals should prepare for an onslaught of cicada poems. We can’t help it, we poet types – when a natural phenomenon is that loud and that noticeable AND it has to do with sex, well, we can’t help but write about it!

I turned out my share of cicada poems during the 2004 emergence, and so for my east coast friends currently bracing themselves for Brood II, I’ll share this one which was published in the anthology And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana.

 

Brood X
Periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim)

They’re here already,
the tiny mounds appearing around trees
at the edges of Dunn’s Woods,
hundreds of thousands per acre,
the seventeen-year cicadas.
What kind of life is it,
dormant in dark soil,
weathering seventeen winters
and emerging? I imagine
seventeen years of my own shed
dreams, the crisp brown husk of them,
hard translucent covering over the eyes,
the split down the back where the bug
escapes, fat as a congratulatory cigar,
green-black and shining,
singing, alive in all the trees,
alive enough to balance out, in one
hot summer, that seventeen-year sleep.

- Anne Haines
published in And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana (ed. Jenny Kander & Charles Greer; Indiana Historical Society Press, 2011)

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Heart of winter

I tend to be a little quiet in January, I think. Something about the cold, and the stillness of being in the heart of winter. (Even though, compared to places like Minnesota or even where I grew up in northern Indiana, the winters here in Bloomington aren’t that bad. It’s unusual for us to have more than a couple of deep snows – by which I mean the kind you have to shovel if you want to get your car out of the driveway – in any given winter.)

photo of sunset on a Maui beach

Maui sunset

I’m thinking back fondly on a couple of midwinter trips to Maui. I went in February both times – the first was totally on a whim, spurred by stumbling across a truly amazing airfare. It was shortly after 9/11/01, and people just weren’t traveling by air very much at all. Americans weren’t going to Hawaii because it involved significant air travel, and folks from other parts of the world weren’t in a hurry to jet themselves over to the U.S. either. So I found an airfare that probably covered the airline’s cost and not much more, and although I didn’t even have a whole week of vacation time to spare, I headed for Maui – and promptly fell in love. I’ve said many times that when I got off the plane at the Kahului airport, having boarded in the gray, wintry Midwest, it was like that moment in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy opens the door and the movie suddenly goes from black-and-white to color.

Even though I can’t go back to Maui this year, I can still almost feel the warm water I snorkeled in, can almost taste the incredible fresh pineapples and mangoes and bananas. Before I went to Maui, I didn’t even realize there were different kinds of bananas! Around here, there are just … bananas. I had apple bananas for the first time on that trip, and it was like a whole new world. And don’t get me started on the coffee there! So, so good.

What I love about having great experiences (travel, and concerts, and so on) is how they stay with you even years later. In the below-zero wind chills we’ve been facing these last few days, sometimes I find myself closing my eyes and dreaming back to Maui. Knowing it’s still out there, waiting for me…

Here’s a whale poem I wrote after my second visit to that beautiful island. It appears in my chapbook, Breach.

O

(Maui, February 2002)

The boat slowed, stopped, small waves
breaking gently on the hull like breaths.
Whale watch veterans of almost two hours,
we shaded eyes, peered at glittering water.

That moment of pure and waiting silence
knowing she was near, then O!
the breach, explosion into air, so close
I felt it in my bones like a great drum

struck. Then struck again. The dark
curve of her body fell toward us
as she crashed back into sea, mountain
of a whale, the mammalian world of her

all I knew just then, all I could take in.
I don’t know if I breathed
until she breached again, and yet again,
great muscular mountain of a whale, sonic

boom of a whale, whole planet of a whale,
wrenching breath from us as we stood
gasping on the drifting boat.
And then the holy stillness.

For those moments we each became
whale, breathing of her, surrounded
by her power, her arc and crash
an actual gravitational force as sure

as heartbeats rocking the salt water
world within the womb. She raised
up her body, her whole cetacean self,
between us and her new calf,

sleek and vulnerable to our well-meant
intrusions. The echo of her sounded
in my own warm-blooded body as my hands
touched before my chest like prayer:

O, mother, mahalo, mahalo.

 

["Mahalo" - thanks/gratitude]

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Best Books of Indiana 2012

cover image of And Know This Place: Poetry of IndianaSome happy poetry news to report this weekend. The lovely anthology And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana (edited by the indefatigable Jenny Kander and C.E. Greer), which includes my poems “Brood X” and “Eight-Bar Solo,” was named as the “Best Book of Indiana 2012” in the poetry category. These annual awards are given by the Indiana Center for the Book in the Indiana State Library. Here’s what the judges had to say about the book:

And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana is a wonderful volume, richly produced, with gorgeous cover art and a fitting allusion to T. S. Eliot in its title. The book is outstanding as a comprehensive anthology of the best and most important of Indiana poetry through the generations. The editors, Jenny Kander and C. E. Greer, have done a magnificent job of selecting representative works of all the poets, and the foreword by Roger Mitchell is exceedingly informative and accessible. The variety of styles, drawing from the full historical corpus of poetry in the Hoosier state, is extremely impressive, offering something for every imaginable taste. As an encapsulation of an essential part our state’s literary history, this book is deserving of a place of honor in the personal library of any lover of things either poetic or Hoosier. As a resource for connoisseur or novice, it would be well placed on a bookshelf next to Czeslaw Milosz’z A Book of Luminous Things and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems.

Needless to say, I am delighted that my work is a small part of this fantastic (and now award-winning) volume, which was published by the Indiana Historical Society and can be ordered directly from them should you be so inclined. (It’s a gorgeous, substantial book. Feels nice in the hand. Go on, give yourself a present!)

You can see a list of the winners and finalists in all categories at the Indiana State Library’s website. And if you are an Indiana resident, you can borrow any of them from the State Library or even request them via interlibrary loan through your local public library! Libraries are cool, y0.

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