Epistle as writing practice

I am often asked by my peers why “young people” do not come to college with exemplary writing skills. Because I feel protective of my students, I wish to defend them–not always an easy task. My first response is that they have not had enough practice in writing to develop adequate fluency, and I generally follow that by admitting that many of my students have never really read books for leisure or out of passionate interest and that they are quite adept at other forms of communication (social media, looking at you!).

Last year, I decided to spend one class period on epistolary writing. I recognized that one way I developed confidence in expressive writing was by writing letters. Lots of them. Every week to my parents, almost as often to my sister, to my best friends, to sweethearts, grandparents, anyone I cared about. Probably 30 years of letters, which later morphed into lengthy emails as the technology developed.

Letters. Who writes them any more? Certainly not today’s college freshmen, if my students offer any objective measurement of their generation.

The epistolary mode offers students a chance to exercise the use of second-person as a governing pronoun, a style that formal academic writing shies away from except in certain forms of persuasive writing–the opinion column, for example. Teaching my students NOT to employ “you” is such a constant effort that I thought letting them write letters would give them a much-needed break from prescribed academic conventions and allow them to loosen up their sentences a bit.

Before I assigned in-class letter-writing, I asked whether any of them ever writes letters. Not one hand went up. I withdrew from my tote bag a clutch of old correspondence (yes, of course I would be that person who keeps the letters people write to me). After flourishing an envelope–with a 29-cent stamp–I disclosed the contents, a ten-page, handwritten letter from a dear friend. The students audibly gasped. “How long did that take to write?” “Did you read all of that?” Sure! When long-distance phone calls were expensive, letters were social media. We couldn’t just snapchat a photo of ourselves standing on a pile of snow and caption it “Snow!” We’d have to send a photo. Or we’d have to describe without the visual–and this is a practice my students have almost never had to employ.

Lack of informal writing practice translates into lack of writing practice, period.

I even read passages from three letters aloud, and the students were impressed with the vivid writing…writing by “non-writers.” “You could write like this, too,” I told them. “You just haven’t needed to do it, and therefore you think you can’t do it.” Then I asked them to think of a person, a specific person, and come up with a reason or purpose to write to that person, and then just write. The response was amazing. Some of these students wrote more in 15 minutes than they ever have for an in-class assignment. Most of them enjoyed it! One student even said that “this old style of long form texting intrigues me” and plans to start writing letters to a sibling once a week.

Success!

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Letter Writers Alliance is an informal site promoting the hand-written, postal-mail delivered epistolary correspondence. Members can sign up to find a pen pal or just browse the site for stationery, pens, letter-writing tips, etc.

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Post traumatic stress

Shell shock. Combat fatigue. Delayed hysteria. Contemporary psychology and medicine have another name for it now, post-traumatic stress disorder, and have extended the concept of delayed stress response to victims of trauma other than combat: abuse and catastrophe victims, anyone who has survived a traumatizing experience, of which the world offers many options.

The mental and physiological symptoms that interrupt the rest of the afflicted person’s life? Those are nothing new. Indeed, perhaps the rage of Achilles was a kind of post-traumatic stress response. Maybe whole cultures reflect collective past traumas, responses delayed by decades, even centuries.

Think of it: most modern nations were born of war, boundaries drawn after bloodshed, famine, oppression through colonization, purges and expulsions. Trauma.

We can never escape suffering, although most people seem equipped to repress painful experiences. The human challenge is to remember without demanding revenge, to employ both reason and compassion in the entire community of human beings. Not, for any of us, an easy task.

Lately, I feel a bit as though the country in which I live–the citizens, popular culture, government and also the environment itself, geological, ecological, biological–has exhibited PTSD responses. Probably, now that I think about it, that’s been true for a long time. So I find myself contemplating the long view (see the Clock of the Long Now for a theoretical 10,000-year perspective!)

As an individual, I do not have a long reach nor a significant number of years to dwell on the planet. That need not keep me from using the long-view perspective; indeed, I sense that the type of curating that I have begun in terms of compiling another manuscript and thinking about the life of work I have contributed over the years through child-raising, landscaping, gardening, teaching, helping young people in university, assisting family members, and whatever other small drops one person can add to the ocean of existence, suggests my comfort level with the long now has deepened.

Likewise, I accept that suffering just pretty much covers the human condition from beginning to end, and without it we would never recognize how amazing the earth and its diverse communities are nor appreciate our joy nearly as much. Despite the difficulty involved in recalling trauma, we may need to face it, with the compassionate support of other humans, in order to more fully live our ordinary lives and understand the long view.

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A handsome red fox just scampered across our back yard. Beautiful in the mid-autumn sunlight, a flash of joy.

 

Composition

Forgive me, readers–whoever you are–this weekend I am composing poems instead of a blog post, revising the work (see this post) and creating new stuff from dribs, drabs, sketches, notes, and the windy day outside with its sky full of variable, intermittent, strangely-colored clouds.

 

 

Berrying

Each year, dill starts going to seed as the beans plump out almost overnight. It’s time to make dilly beans, if you can stand to work in the kitchen, canning–as my grandmothers always did, without the assistance of air conditioning.

No, thanks. I prefer beans fresh. I rise as early as I can and harvest them before the sun gets too high. This morning, I remembered to look for blackberries, too.

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Turns out this is a good year for blackberries. The canes are loaded with fruit and weighted with vining wild grapes and honeysuckle. The latter bloomed rather late this year and are still putting forth fragrant flowers. The marvelous scent made berry-picking quite soothing.

Soon, the catbirds and orioles and everyone else will be harvesting these berries. Despite their thorns (which didn’t deter me, either).

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It has been far too hot to work in the garden, however; so I have been writing, and submitting work to literary journals, and even painting a little–something I have not done in years. Finding ways to be both creative and relaxed. Much needed.

Blogs

The snow’s receded, and the crocuses open; yet another wintry storm looms. Nonetheless, the past three days have felt less like thaws and more like spring itself. Today, I’m listing some great blogs to browse, breeze through, or peruse…as I am at present falling a bit behind on the Blog Tour (among other things).

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There may be a hiatus to follow…in the meantime, follow these!

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Good blogs on what it means to be a poet, in or out of academia, and to keep slugging away at the job:

Jeannine Hall Gailey, who has a new book about promoting & marketing one’s poetry (available from Two Sylvias Press): http://webbish6.com/

Diane Lockward: http://dianelockward.blogspot.com/

Lesley Wheeler: https://lesleywheeler.org/author/thecavethehive/

Grant Clauser: https://uniambic.com/

Donna Vorreyer: https://djvorreyer.wordpress.com/author/djvorreyer/

Kelli Russell Agodon: http://ofkells.blogspot.com/

Dedicated poem-a-day or nearly a-poem-a-day bloggers who actually write good poems:

Lou Faber: https://anoldwriter.com/

Luisa Igloria, whose fine book The Buddha Wonders If She Is Having a Mid-life Crisis just came out from Beth Adams’ (15+ years of blogging! @ Cassandra Pages) Phoenicia Publishing: https://www.vianegativa.us/author/luisa/

And Dave Bonta, also 15 years blogging, who does a mighty job of crowdsourcing poetry and poets: https://www.vianegativa.us/author/dave/

Then these blogs, which often blend visual art with poetry, or poetry with visual art, such as:

Marilyn McCabe: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/

Art critic and artist Sigrun Omstreifer: https://omstreifer.com/

Artist Deborah Barlow: http://www.slowmuse.com/

And finally, a field biologist (specialty: entomology, bees in particular, but she photographs omnivorously) who loves poetry and posts the occasional poem amid her informative essays on birds, bugs, landscapes, hikes, travel, dogs, and all things lively and worth investigating: https://standingoutinmyfield.wordpress.com

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That should keep readers busy for National Poetry Month and beyond!

 

L’enigma

“What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.”

This quote is attributed to Giorgio de Chirico, favorite artist of my poetry mentor & best pal, the late David Dunn. I like the way this idea is phrased (it may be the translator, it may be de Chirico): to live as in a museum; for a museum’s purpose–behind its collection, curation, and presentation–is simply to offer up items for the community to observe.

Paolo Baldacci makes an argument for de Chirico as “the first conceptual artist” that I find intriguing if ultimately unconvincing. There is merit, however, in considering the artist’s “surrealist era” paintings as conceptual in the sense that experiencing the work unsettles the viewer, distorts her sense of the real and requires her to enter the world of the painting with its enigmatic strangeness. And to observe without knowing, exactly, what it is she can see.

Artist Deborah Barlow, on her blog Slow Muse, has some words worth reading on the subject of “not knowing” that visitors to museums and galleries, and those who can view the world as an immense museum of strange things, may recognize. Barlow suggests that there may be an “essential incomprehensibility” in the acts of art-making and path-making as the human being moves from the known to the not-known. The enigma, as de Chirico terms it. The ambiguous and uncertain, the experiment, the unanswered question.

David Dunn often wrote letters to me in which he expressed his occasional discomfort with words, with sentences and language; he wished he could paint or play a musical instrument–felt that jazz might have enabled him to enter the enigma more fearlessly, as his jazz heroes did when they jammed and improvised.

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“L’enigma della Oro” (1910)

We wrote about writing, often. Poetry–and the problem of saying the unsayable. Lately, I feel almost ready to retrieve his letters from the box where I’ve kept them for 20 years. My personal museum, those old letters. My immense museum, this strange, strange world.

A poem that offers entrance into a potentially uncomfortable world–by Luisa Igloria on Dave Bonta’s via negativa site: click here.

 

Edges & outcomes

One outcome of participating in a “blog tour” is the opportunity to listen in on what writers younger than I–or newer to the act of being-a-poet–experience in the literary environment of the 21st century. In some ways that has become quite a changed adventure from the early 1980s when the alternatives to major presses and established print journals were little fly-by-night xerox-zines, copied and stapled in runs of under 100. But perhaps not so different from free blogs with just a few dedicated followers; those miniature publications gave me my first print credentials as a poet. Today, I read Lissa Clouser writing of “all the things I’m not” and recalled my own early and uncertain forays at the edges of the literary world.

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xerox-zines, ca. 1982-ish

I now enjoy being outside, observing the edges. It’s more interesting than I realized when I was in my 20s–when edginess was cool, but one might wish to belong with the edgy newcomers. [The paradox of being in the tribe of outsiders.]

Also, I found the garden and the woods and meadows intriguing, and also child-raising, teaching, neuroscience, philosophy. I became a nominal member of many tribes. Including, more recently, the tribe of the aging person and the tribe of the chronically ill–communities that range widely, encompass much, and are fraught with delicious and difficult complexity.

It took me 20 years to get to Arthur W. Frank’s book The Wounded Storyteller, and I might not have found it so useful and illuminating if I’d read it twenty years ago. Now, however, the book’s insights are relevant to my life and to the current moment. Frank powerfully reminds us that as members of the human collective, we need to listen to people; that in time, all of us become wounded storytellers; and, therefore, each of us benefits by learning how to bear human living with a kind of “intransitive hope.” By intransitive hope, Frank means finding a way to be with our suffering in life, recognize that suffering happens, but also to recognize that there are ways to be human that do not end in miraculous cures–that may (and will, eventually) end in death.

And that’s okay. He suggests that healing is a project, not an outcome.

Kind of like writing, you know?

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“As far as I’m concerned, poetry is the best thing that exists in the universe.”             –-Kaveh Akbar

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