POP QUIZ

Can you take a guess as to what this is?

 

I will give you one clue: It is something in my office. Use the comments section to make a guess.

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Strings

One of the writing assignments I often give students in my poetry writing workshops is to write a history poem. Not current-events history, but personal history. Among the prompts I give them are: write an autobiography of the ways they’ve worn their hair, write a list of houses they’ve lived in, or draw a map of the neighborhood they lived in when they were 10 or 12. In addition, I give them some sample poems, including “A History of the Pets” by Vermont poet David Huddle. (if you’d like to see Huddle talk about poetry, try this.) I want them to consider the strings that have run through their lives, often connecting to family.

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I was thinking of my history lately when my niece Elizabeth sent me half a dozen black-and-white snaps that my newly-retired brother John had developed from negatives he recently found. (You do remember negatives, yes?) In these pictures I was about three years old, living in Maryland. As photographic technologies changed, my family accumulated hundreds of slides to replace the Brownie shots. Often a family gathering included a slideshow orchestrated by my father who selected a random carousel of slides to show us. His method of organizing the slides was to not organize them. So, we might see a slide or two of a 4th-of-July parade, followed by a decorated Christmas tree, and a group shot in front of the church following a wedding. Then back to a parade…from another year. Photographs are certainly a string that connects my history.

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One of the strongest strings is my collection of tickets from baseball games I have gone to. The tickets sit in a Fenway Park/Citgo promotion glass that has sat on my bureau for nearly 25 years. I have tickets that go back to 1993, including the tickets to five games that Emma and I saw when we drove back to Maine from California after she graduated from college in 2012. And, in the glass is a ticket to an Orioles-Blue Jays game in Baltimore that my brother Mark and I were traveling to the morning when the first plane hit the North Tower on 9/11. Talk about strings.

 

Do you have strings that you hold dear?

How I Write

I write slowly. On purpose. With purpose. I write all my preliminary notes, jottings, and first draft in longhand on yellow lined paper with a fountain pen. Always. Writing with a fountain pen slows me down, which gives me the opportunity to think more as I write. What’s next? Is there a better way to say this? Sure, I want to let the words and ideas flow, but I tend to do some editing as I draft. And with a fountain pen, there there’s always a pause at the end of page, as I wait for the last line of words to dry before I flip the sheet to the other side.

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Writing with a fountain pen is also part of my ritual when I write. Selecting the pen I’ll use, as well as the color ink. For me, it’s so much more satisfying than using a Bic with its end pitted with teeth marks.

When I’ve written four or five pages of a nonfiction chapter, for example, I swivel my chair from my desk to my iMac and type the pages into Word, again editing a bit as I type. I need to put my draft into Word soon after I write a handful of pages because it makes it more likely that I’ll be able to read what I’d written. My penmanship is often unruly, so going to Word soon after I’ve written is critical.

And that’s the early part of the process for me: fountain pen on yellow pager to Word, then back to my fountain pen for my next short installment. Every time I type a page of my draft, I drag a slash of blue highlighter down the sheet, my signal that that pages is safely in Word.

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Of course, once all my pages are in Word, then the hard work begins: revising and rewriting, the part of the process that I like the least. But it really is what good writing is all about. So, I revise, reading with pen in hand—a ball point will do for this—looking for words that I can change or cut, sentences to streamline, paragraphs that belong in a different part of the chapter. Once I have made those changes in the doc, I print the chapter and give it time to rest in a folder—a day or two—then read it again, pen in hand, tweaking until the chapter becomes the best I can write. Then I’m back at my desk facing another blank yellow sheet, fountain pen in hand.

A visit to the past

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 On my recent visit to the Jersey town in which I grew up, I took a walk and found myself standing in front of the house where I spent my kid years, across the street from the school field where brothers and friends played baseball on countless days until, as Jonathan Holden wrote, “the ball is khaki—/a movable piece of the twilight/...and routine grounders get lost in/the sweet grass for extra bases.”

    But before the sky darkened, we often shimmied up the drain pipe in a hidden corner of the school to the flat roof and ran around hoping to find a baseball that other kids had hit up there and abandoned like a bad idea, a baseball that was always in better shape than the ones wrapped in black electrical tape that we usually used.

    And the house. Truth be told, not much about it has changed since I left for college over 50 years ago. I found comfort in that. And a measure of gratitude as well.

    When I finally stepped into the street to leave, in the gutter I found a baseball. I picked it up and rubbed it in my hands, feeling a sense of comfort in its roughness. And gratitude.

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    As I slipped the ball into my jacket pocket, I thought of what John Banville wrote in the opening section of his new Memoir, Time Pieces, “When does the past become the past? How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness? After all, the resplendent vision we carry with us in memory was once merely the present, dull and mundane and wholly unremarkable.... What is the magic that is worked upon experience, when it is burnished to a finished radiance?...Let us say, the present is where we live, while the past is where we dream. Yet if it is a dream, it is substantial, and sustaining....And when does the past become the past?”

I’d love to hear what you think of Banville’s final question.

Welcome to my blog

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             One of the best things about this new-and-improved website is that it gives me the chance to write a blog. As the blog evolves, I’ll try to keep it practical, helpful, and lighthearted. The subject of the blog will be about poetry. Mostly. However, I will, from time to time, have something to say about the writing process, creativity, and journaling. I will talk about how I write, select poems, and decide which book I would like to write next. Oh, and I might have something to say about the Red Sox, fountain pens, and living on the coast of Maine. I will also have a monthly Poetry Connection, in which I will feature a poem by a contemporary poet, followed by some comments by the poet about the poem. In addition, I will alert you to new and noteworthy poetry books, especially those suitable for classroom use. And, since so much of poetry is sound, I have partnered with AudioFile magazine to bring you news and reviews of worthwhile audio poetry programs. I hope to include a link to excerpts from these books. Finally, I plan to share poetry-writing lessons for your classrooms.

            I hope that From My Desk is not a one-way street. I will welcome your comments, suggestions, and questions.