I try to steer away from being self serving, though on inspection I can’t help but veer toward it. I do like to notice when I’m fortunate, and hope to do it here without patting myself on the back with too much vigor.
I had a birthday last night; it’s dark and cold so we’re all looking for reasons to celebrate, which partially accounts for the 15 people or so who showed up for latkes, beef tenderloin, and Cesar salad.
But neither the food nor my birthday is the point. Poems are what I’m grateful for, poems written by young men who used to be fourth-grade students of mine more than a decade ago. Dillon and Zeb came over, bringing poems they wrote as presents.
Let’s throw it out there! For a former elementary school teacher turned poet receiving poems as presents from adults, who I taught when they were nine years old, is a tornado wind of affirming.
I’m fortunate, sure, to have received the poems; more though, I’m incredibly lucky to share an orbit with these two men, who value the idea of slowing down enough to make a birthday card and write poems on them. I can’t take much credit for the values they’ve taken as their own. But we must believe, as teachers, that we’ve woven some tender thread in the web that is our students’ lives. The poems they wrote present me with some evidence to sustain that belief.
By writing their poems, Dillon and Zeb did not bend the arc of history. They did, though, display a certain heart. A poem exists in a slow time, is often born in solitude. It takes effort to make one; it takes courage to share it. A poem is a giving of our most deliberate and considered creating; it represents us at our most open, ready and thoughtful. If we are found wanting in our poems, we’re wounded. And yet, they still wrote me poems and allowed me to read them out loud.
Part of Zeb’s poem about the desert and people growing up in it reads:
“racing creation slow motion in the train station,
hammock swingz on a mountain,
a falcon sings as we’re dancing and shouting,
shooting starz and broken down cars,
golden memoriez followed by faded scarz…”
There’s nothing about the writing of poetry that makes a person any better or worse than anyone else. There is, though, a glow, no denying it, one gets from receiving poems from beautiful young men who’ve got plenty of distractions and demands to weigh.
I’m fortunate, most grateful, and I owe them both a poem, so we can keep swapping on our continued shared journey. I can’t wait to read what more they have to say.
Bob Hicok, a poet out of Michigan, wrote a poem called A Primer, where he was trying to teach the rest of us something about that midwestern state, while saying something about the need for stories — writing them and listening to them. A Primer landed in the New Yorker in 2008 and I read it many years after that.
It wasn’t too long after reading Hicok’s poem that I had an experience in early spring while sawing shelf lengths for my bathroom that I was renovating. I was doing the work on my deck. The Norwottuck Branch Rail Trail, connecting the towns east of the Connecticut River with my city sitting on the western banks of the river, is next to my house, and I see on a sunny day hundreds of people zipping by, some on bicycles, some on roller skis, others running.
One biker was trying to fix a tire on his bike. I helped him, and from that experience a poem was born. When I wrote it, I was thinking of Hicok and his poem. You can read my poem at https://vitabrevisliterature.com. It was published today.
Sometimes my written work is more like rocks than poems; they take what seems like eons of weathering and smoothing before being ready for me to throw them out into the world. I wrote the poem below at least five years ago after a mammoth rock-skipping episode I had with my brother on Burton Island, which sits on the east side of Lake Champlain. That summer morning in Vermont, the wind settled, the lake water laid flat and the beach we were on was littered with hand-sized, flat, round rocks. Some families might pass that opportunity by without seeing the opportunity. My family throws things — dishes, balls, wine corks, nearly anything light enough that fits in our hands. We just do. My brother and I set to skipping rocks when we found the stash.
My first edition of the poem was twice this long. I know, though, some fine poets and writers, who read my work and made suggestions. I ignored some, took others. I smoothed what was jagged in the poem and now I toss it out into the world. The editor Brian Geiger at Vita Brevis, who has published two other poems of mine, put this one up today. Here’s the link: https://vitabrevisliterature.com/category/poems/
Brian will put another of my poems next Sunday, One Palm Sunday, A New England Primer.
There may be better indicators of the values held dear by a community than what’s popular at the grocery store, and yet what disappears first during a snowstorm must hold some measure of importance.
You see snowstorms have a way of focusing us, bringing us together as we share what we can’t control. During a snowstorm, we do a sort of life-triage, taking care of and buying only what’s necessary.
I was thinking of this on Monday when I took a break from shoveling, during a brief lull in New England’s first winter storm of the season, and found I had no coffee. (Coffee fits first inside my triage list.) It made sense to go to the store, even though I didn’t need food. It was four days past Thanksgiving, and my refrigerator was full of cranberry sauce, creamed onions, candied yams, cornbread stuffing, au gratin potatoes (the mashed having vanished already,) scalloped oysters (a dish so bizarre that it would take a separate post to explain it,) turkey meat, and, now, turkey soup. This represents a partial listing, because I report from memory, and that faculty will always fail me when matched against Thanksgiving dishes my tribe produces.
So during this storm interlude, I’m checking out at my city’s food co-op. I chat with Carol, the friendly clerk at aisle number 1, remarking that the store is pleasantly empty compared to the day before Thanksgiving, when too many of us stuffed ourselves in here.
Oh, yeah, you should have seen it yesterday, she says.
Why yesterday? Before I finish asking the question, I know the answer.
People were in here before the storm, and the lines were everywhere.
This kind of pre-storm behavior, I assume, takes place everywhere there are forecasts of bad weather events and disasters, like hurricanes or tsunamis. Folks here, though, engage in this atavistic need to buy more canned tomatoes and stock up on almond milk before a snowstorm hits, because people can’t be sure when they’ll be safe to travel again. People say they are anxious about travel here despite what I have noticed — there is no shortage of snowplows in New England. Every young person with a truck seems to own one. This excess of plows is of no solace. We keep shopping before storms.
The woman bagging my coffee and tortillas wonders out loud:
How is anybody running out of food just days after Thanksgiving?
I picture my refrigerator leftovers, and say, Right! (I do realize that not everyone is as food secure as my family and they do not have my reserves of potatoes and onions and oysters, but the people shopping at the no-discount, always-top-price co-op are anything but food insecure. And despite their security, they shop prior to a storm.)
The produce department was really busy, Carol says.
I can’t help myself. I must ask. How busy? (It was as if I was the straight man in Carol’s conveyor belt joke show.)
So busy that they ran out of kale.
Not water. Not peanut butter. Not bread. Not beer.
Running out of kale the night before a snowstorm might not express the true measure of this place, but it indicates something of what we hold important.
As the inches of snow piled outside, and we cast aside what was unimportant, concentrating on the meaningful, here in my town we ate right. We ate more kale.
A preface to the blog post: I’ve been reading The Book of Delights, a collection of essays by Ross Gay, who writes pieces imbued with a pulsing energy making it hard to sit still while reading them. His book of poems Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude makes me squirm in my seat the same way his essays do. Reading Gay then walking with a friend downtown during Northampton’s Bag Day (the city’s Get-Out-And-Shop Day) led me to the post below. You may not need it; I often want to know the origins of someone’s thinking. That was mine.
I’m standing and waiting to cross one of the city’s downtown intersections with my new friend Gen, who’s not new to me or she to me but our friendship still feels born in the moment before last, when two wonderful things happen, both related to the same young woman, who taps me on the shoulder.
I turn and without delay recognize the young woman as the skinny, curly-haired girl I taught when she was in fifth grade. I’m delighted with myself because I make this connection quickly. I do not do this often, because I’m plain horrible at (nearly dysfunctional at) recognizing faces — face blind is what some call it. Embarrassment is what I often endure. Having recognized her, I introduce Sam, the smart but often socially tangled up 5th grader who’s now a composed high school senior, to Gen.
I think that’ll be the end of it, since the light’s about to turn stopping traffic and allowing us to cross the street. Sam, though, is not done. She introduces me to her friend, whose name I never commit to memory because of what I hear next. Sam tells me that she’s Senior Class President, which doesn’t surprise me since it was obvious to me seven years ago that she was capable of achievements she could not imagine then. I smile and congratulate her. But I have not seen what she thinks is important. So she continues, telling me that I’m partly the reason for her selection as president.
You told me that I was going places. You told me that I’d be a leader one day. And now I am.
Yes. You don’t remember?
Uh, no. (I have said many things — some apparently meaningful — that I have no recollection of saying, but others have repeated back to me. This is another of those instances.)
I have no words to rescue myself, so I give her a hug. And she hugs me in return, outside the city’s sweet shop, and it’s not weird that an old guy is hugging a young woman, instead, it’s a message to all those teachers, current and former, like me, walking around and wondering if those years battling invasive testing of useless content was worth the effort. Why, I argued in too strident a voice too many times, do we care whether a 10-year-old can identify the picture of a mussel as a mollusk? Why does a 10-year-old have to know that when a moon is past half full, but not yet full, it is described as gibbous? How the heck is that relevant and what will it have to do with getting a bright girl, who has a tendency to get herself tangled in the brambles of a fifth grade social world, elected president of her senior class in high school? Yes, Sam says to me, (though she does not say this since she doesn’t know I’ll be thinking about this later) it was worth it, and I thank you for it.
The hug ends and we go our own ways. Gen and I cross the intersection diagonally, but the chat with Sam and the hugs and the congratulations about being the leader I knew she’d be, has taken so long that now we’re in the middle of the wide street and Gen is worried. The lights are green and cars are moving around us.
I don’t care. I’ve been validated and seen as worthy. As any fifth grader can tell you that act adds power to a life — enough to stop traffic in the middle of town or get you elected president of the senior class.
My neighborhood lies at the heart of Northampton, a small city in western Massachusetts.
At the same time that it’s geographically centered, this neighborhood is also isolated and a little wild. The Millyard, that’s the name of this place that few know and fewer use, is an odd assembly ofold homes that used to house railroad workers. We live, by definition, on the other side of the tracks. And we like it that way — at least I do.
A few of us — my wife plus Figge and Melodie, the neighbors who abut our backyard — scheme over evening beers about bringing the community together. I decided to forge ahead by building then erecting The Millyard Poetry Box.
The idea came from that hot house of all things cool — Portland, OR. My brother’s family lives in the Hollywood District of that most white and most millennial of cities, where people hold nude biking parades and drink the best beer in the land. Of course, next door to my brother’s house stands a poetry box.
I took pictures of the Portland poetry box and built my own, then painted signs, inviting others to contribute.
My hope is that neighbors, even those who live in the wider area, will print poems they love or write the poems they wish they could read and drop them off at the box. I’ll then display a new poem every week or so.
I don’t imagine that keeping up with the flow of poems will be difficult work, rather like mowing the lawn in the Sahara Desert.
I, though, have a surfeit of poems, both written by me and those I’ve collected from other poets. My shack walls are postered with poems by Wendall Berry, Wislawa Szymborska, Jack Kerouac, and Mary Oliver. My buddy Sam Taylor, the renowned potter, writes me poems that I tack up on my wall. They are all candidates for the Millyard Poetry Box.
New England Palm Sunday Prayer is the first poem I hung in the box. It’s a poem I wrote a few years ago, and has been rejected by any number of publications. It’s found its place, the poetry box next to the railroad tracks. Walgreen’s Drugstore sits in the background across the tracks. This is self-publishing at its most primitive, and an improvement to the neighborhood.
I wanted to hang my poem Letter to the Neighbor who Calls the Fire Department When I Burn Illegally first, but my wife, Janet, warned me that a snarky first poem might set the wrong tone. She is right, which seems to be happening more and more the older I get. The poem is an invitation to my neighbor, whoever it is, to come talk to me before calling the authorities when burn brush. I set down four principles of our neighborhood, The Millyard:
Pull your shades during intimacy
Shovel your snow, help your neighbors shovel theirs
Mind the kids, even if they’re not yours
Spend a few moments chatting with neighbors, it thickens our bonds
Nobody asked me to set down what we believe here in The Millyard. It’s the opportunity I seized since I built The Poetry Box.If others would like to amend our principles, the Millyard Poetry Box is always open.
Below is the first poem hung at the Millyard Poetry Box.
New England Palm Sunday Prayer
During an early spring warming
we reveal ourselves in the north,
we’re in shorts
before the trees spread,
before leaves hide us
This Sunday before Easter,
the restless ride bikes and scooters
on the nearby bike path.
Some passersby watch me saw boards.
I, in turn, spy
one man try inflating a flat.
Pope Francis, a member of my Taoist, Episcopal, Stoic sect,
intones help is always right.
Straight as mercy can make me,
The local student says he’s at a loss.
I promise I’ll return
with air pump, tire irons and a new tube.
You couldn’t have broken down in a better place, I say.
The manual typewriter reminds me every time I use it that I have to be careful about my relationship with freedom. It’s a drug that feels good going down, but too much of it disrupts my work flow. My slick laptop manipulates text so easily that if I don’t pay attention, I don’t write anything new for hours.
It’s not that I get distracted by social media or jumping down an internet rabbit hole. I turn off my wi-fi when writing. The hard truth is that rewriting a sentence is easier than writing a new one.
My Smith-Corona won’t let me rewrite or revise — it forces me to create.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my problem was one that the psychologist and author, Barry Schwartz, has been investigating for years. Schwartz, who wrote the book The Paradox of Choice, says that choice and freedom are accepted as the ultimate benefit by western society, when, in fact, too much of both leaves us unhappy, maybe even depressed. In my case, too much choice leaves me unproductive.
I might never have seen the issue, if I had not started writing poems on my Smith-Corona typewriter at the Martha’s Vineyard Art Market, where I charged customers for each poem I wrote in twenty minutes. I call it writing Poems On-Demand.
Now, I’m figuring out how to incorporate the lessons learned writing typewriter poems into my regular writing routine as I work to finish a middle-grade novel. The typewriter, a machine invented in the 19th century, I realize, has something to say to 21st century writers.
I’ve written poems at the Martha’s Vineyard Art Market two years running. Last year, I got a feel for my Smith-Corona. This year, writing hard from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. one September Sunday, I noticed a fearlessness developing in my relationship to my work. The Smith-Corona had everything to do with that.
A typewriter, more a small printing press than a word processor, does not allow second chances, no do-overs, few changes. Like a boatman who could not alter his sail, I had to put myself on a tack and keep the line until I finished the poem. My manual typewriter has no corrective tape, and the only way to eliminate an error is to type xxx through unwanted letters.
I added a time limit to my new no-revising restriction. I told people that I’d have their poem ready for them after they were done browsing the paintings, pottery, and woodworking available at the Art Market. I had to meet deadline.
After working this way, forging ahead without stopping and doing it quickly, I found I was writing differently. I was playing, writing with abandon, not caring so much about the product.
I wanted people to be happy with their poems, sure, but I could not change anything once the text rolled off my Smith-Corona. This was 19th century technology. They had to accept it, and so did I.
When I work normally, I often get lost in choice, hopping from one mode of writing to another. Writers can create. They can edit. They can proofread. They can revise. They can procrastinate. In one hour, I can do them all and often have. That’s a problem, since what writers need to do first is write — not revise and redo.
Smith-Corona limits my choices. I can only create. The typewriter demands that I remain a creator, a maker, a poet who never turns to editing before the work of dreaming up the text is complete. When I make a mistake, I work around it, and so instead of dismissing what I bungled, I make an opportunity of it.
That’s a different way of thinking. That’s the mindset that so many writers of how-to writing manuals advise that beginning writers adopt. When Anne Lamott or Elizabeth Gilbert or Ted Kooser implore writers to practice one part of writing at a time, they must do so with a wide, wry smile. They know the difficulty of sticking with the creating.
The rest of us — by that I mean me — switch out of the creating lane easily when we lose the momentum of inspiration. My word processing application allows me access to any part of my novel within seconds. I may be working on page 56, but I can return to page 3 within seconds, changing the dialogue there to be consistent with what I just wrote. The speed with which I’m able to zoom around the text makes me feel like a superhero. Trouble is I don’t need to be a superhero; I need to write original copy.
But, oops that word is spelled wrong. So, I change it. That sentence is put together in a clunky way. I revise it. I switch easily from visioning to revisioning, because that’s easier for me. Fixing what’s there, fiddling with the less than perfect isn’t as scary as bringing something new to life out of nothing.
All that choice is stifling. It turns out psychologists have been studying this for the last fifteen years. They know what Smith-Corona had to teach me:Too much freedom is a pain.
Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College who studies choice and freedom, wrote in the Harvard Business Review back in 2008, that “Choice is good for us, but its relationship to satisfaction appears to be more complicated than we had assumed… What’s more, psychologists and business academics alike have largely ignored another outcome of choice: More of it requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out.”
That is exactly how I feel after a few hours of writing, yet not producing anything new. It’s the opposite of the joy I felt clacking my way through 20-minute poems on my Smith-Corona.
The typewriter, that old-time machine that limits my choice, improves my well-being — and my writing. Many of us jettisoned our typewriters thirty years ago. Some people kept theirs, like the angel in Hadley, MA. who read my plea for a typewriter and gave me hers. I was ready to pay her $50. She gave it to me, instead.
I cannot, though, use a typewriter for my 30,000 word children’s novel. Using the Smith-Corona, and keeping track of more than 100 separate pages of text, would be missing the point. I can learn from the Smith-Corona experience without tossing my laptop.
So, here are my Smith-Corona writing lessons:
Write in time chunks. For a poem, that might mean working for twenty to thirty minutes uninterrupted. Finish the unedited, unrevised, unproofread poem and rest. Then repeat. For my novel, I am trying to write one hour at a time. Thenrest or stretch or putter in the garden. The difficulty is returning to the writing, not getting distracted by my quick rest. Solving that issue is a post for another day.
Set my expectations clearly. If I am creating, then I need to enter my Smith-Corona mode, moving forward and not getting distracted by the quality of the product. This is the time for play, for fun. It’s also risky and why I often revert to revising.
Schwartz talks about too much choice leaving some people blaming themselves for being unhappy when decisions don’t work out the way they expected. We’ve all had days filled with blame when our writing failed.
My days with the Smith-Corona, though, were blame free. The environment was low stakes, I know. None of those poems will ever be published, nor should they. But I can’t help but feel that my satisfaction increased while my expectations were tampered, because I was working on a machine that allowed me one choice: to write.