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I received an email Monday, prior to the public press release, that announced the winners of the 2009 Wisconsin Academy annual poetry contest. (You can see the list of winners on the Wisconsin Academy website.) I’m not on the list.

This contest is the first one I’ve entered. Even though I didn’t win anything, it won’t be the last. In fact, I’ve sent submissions to two other contests since. It seems contests have an advantage to the writer over a direct submission. There’s no direct rejection letter, no form letter, no politely worded dismissal — just a list of winners made public. If you didn’t get a winners’ notice or your name’s not on the list, you didn’t make it. You just have to keep submitting. One will hit.

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I finished reading the novel, The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein, last night. First of all, it’s an exceptional book. It’s well written, complex, yet still has engaging, powerful characters. The author peppers the story with historical names and events, but brings you into the story through her protagonist — a woman I wish I knew personally. To me, this makes great historical fiction. Throughout the story, Yuiliang, the main character, uses poetry as a calmling chant, a game, and as a seduction device. Most of the poetry she quotes to herself is from Li Qingzhao, a poet who lived in the 12th century (thank you, Wikipedia). I don’t know of any western poetry that has endured that long, and the Chinese have poems that are even older. The closest I can think of are psalms, but I don’t think the old testament counts as western literature.

Portrait of Li Qingzhao by Zhou Sicong

Portrait of Li Qingzhao by Zhou Sicong

I caress the withered flower, fondle the fragrant petals
Trying to bring back the lost time.

She’s an orphan on a boat with her uncle, who is about to sell her — either for more opium or debts. We don’t know or care which, we just know what’s about to happen and she doesn’t. She’s just remembering her mother.

It was far into the night when, intoxicated,
I took off my ornaments;
The plum flower withered in my hair.

After her first customer in the brothel. Enough said.

The author uses other poets, Li Po and Ho Xuan Huong, both of whom are even older poets. I think the author has the character personally attached to Li Quingzhao because she is a “poetess,” and she herself, as a painter, has fought her whole career against being labeled “a woman painter.”

These poets set the bar very, very high. The poems have spare imagery, but are so emotionally evocative. In my whole life, I should write one poem that comes close to any of these.

To the Tune of Mulberry Picking Bajiao*
Who planted the bajiao tree under my windows?
Its shade fills the courtyard;
Its shade fills the courtyard…

Leaf to leaf, heart to heart,
folding and unfolding,
It expresses boundless affection.

Sad and broken-hearted, lying awake on my pillow,
Late into the night
I hear the sound of rain.

It drips and splashes, cool and melancholy;
It drips and splashes, cool and melancholy…

Lonely for my beloved, grief-stricken,
I cannot endure the mournful sound
of rain.
   
 * Ba jiao [pa chiao] belongs to the musa family, grown for
   the ornament of their large striking foliage.

theshack

I first read a review of The Shack several months ago, praising its courage in subject matter. Unfortunately, I can’t agree — the book doesn’t live up to the effusive praise most have given it. It’s just too poorly written.

I am always interested in books that explore practical spirituality. When I went online to the library catalog, I found out that A LOT of others must be, too. I landed about number 300 on the waiting list (Yikes!). However, my number came up this week and, because it looked like a fast read, I started and finished it in less than a day, putting the biography of Walt Whitman and his brothers’ lives during the civil war, Now the Drum of War, that I had been reading on hold.

I imagine that those who have heaped praise on the book have done so mostly because there are not a lot of well-written books of this type available for them. I’m certain the publishing industry has noticed this lack in the genre by now. The Shack was originally self-published and ostensibly intended only as a gift for the author’s family. It was shopped to publishers and rejected by several (again, I believe it was rejected because of the writing quality – not the subject matter).

The author does make some interesting points, unfortunately, those salient points are glossed over too quickly: that god doesn’t speak directly to anyone anymore (as god did in ancient times), but relies exclusively on the “guilt-edged bible” to do his communication for him [sic], that god is a Euro-white male “papa” image that limits divinity; Jesus’ humanity, or own attachment to the simple dualities of good and bad. The parable’s basic plot line and theme have potential and surely resonates with people — how can a loving god allow such a terrible crime to happen to an innocent child? I just wish the author had been more skilled when he attempted to give us the answer.

Listening to my brilliant friends at the writing group last night, like most meetings, they spouted off some great lines and ideas. One example: That’s a dead-end creek. Whether he will remember saying it, I don’t know, but I will probably use it. Same with another phrase I heard in passing: patchwork soul. Has a bit of a country song sound to it, but that never stopped me. My point is that you can have the point-of-view that those are someone else’s ideas and you can’t touch them or you can have the idea that the universe will provide and allow it to provide for you in myriad ways. One of those ways can be out of the mouths of people who aren’t going to write that phrase down. Besides, how do you really know that your lines are completely original — no matter how long you struggle over them? I can’t remember everything I’ve ever read or heard, so it’s possible that some ideas come in at a lower level of consciousness. This input just may be what you call inspiration.

My writing this morning has been scattered. My morning walk normally centers me as I do walking meditation or other awareness tools. Instead there was a rock in my path (I noticed it, so I had to pick it up. Yes, I have a minor obsession with rocks.) It’s pyramid-shaped, pink granite with one side that’s very rough and the other two and the base worn smooth. Since I picked it up, all I’ve been able to think about are the men who’ve affected my life over the years. I squeeze the rock in my hand, and the edge cuts into my skin. Not quite enough to break the skin but enough to feel the sharpness and the pressure. Honestly, there have been many men, but most were barely a blip of a dalliance. Only three still prod and provoke me. or at least their memory does. Each relationship’s outcome seemed pre-destined, inevitable (do I believe in that, I wonder?). Or is it just the benefit of hindsight?

When I think of one, it’s been nearly thirty years since I’ve seen him. I have been working on a poem about our relationship for over a month now, and I just can’t articulate my feelings well enough to write coherently. Maybe that’s what I should write: how hard the idea of one person is to contain completely in one poem. Nah. That would be a cop-out. Am I showing my age with that slang? What’s the current way of saying that? I’ll have to research that.

I don’t have writer’s block, but I do get writer’s pinball — where my mind pings around without focus distracted easily by the flashing lights and bells. My thoughts stumble and careen like a sorority girl after a night out with sailors.

But at least I’m writing.

fri_131Not me — I was born on the 13th. Like most fears, fear of the number 13 or Friday the 13th is a culturally induced belief. I don’t know anyone who’s actually afraid of 13 — I do know people who are afraid of werewolves (Carl), peanut butter (Lisa), angora (Barbara), and t-bar ski lifts (Janet). They make my own fear of big spiders and tarantulas seem reasonable. And, since this is my blog, there won’t be any representative pictures of arachnids in this post.

I’ve written about beliefs and wishing before, including monsters under the bed, in my poem “Did you Ever?” I’m going to explore deeper fears next. Unlike wishes, even writing about fears is sending out the invitation to them to show up in my life.  Poetry is an extreme sport.

I haven’t taken any classes in writing poetry, so I’ve been experimenting on my own with different voices and styles, just to see what happens. While experimenting, I wrote this poem about Ophelia’s drowning in the voices of the servants who may have found her. I was also reading Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons at the time, so I intended to make the voice 19th century southern American.

Ophelia Found

 

We found Miss Ophelia

drowned in the river

sunup this morning

checking fish traps we was

drowned by her choices she was

            Happens with no mother to see to a young’un.

Yes.

 

Stones clutched in her hands

stones lading her bodice

that fine thin gown a-hers

binding up her legs

pale like a baby bird they was

tried to fly too soon

            Better she should’ve put a stone enwomb.

Yes.

 

Pulled her out from the water

laid her down soft on the bank

sent the boy to tell ma’am

whilst I made her clean as I could

carried her up to the house

            Cleaned up as much as you could I’m sure.

Yes.

 

We piled her stones in a little cairn

aside the river

stones she chose herself

to mark the place

moved the traps upstream

Did you tell ma’am about the stones?

No.

 

©Copyright 2009 Pat Edwards

Today the temperature is predicted to reach almost 50. For Wisconsin in February, that’s a rare treat. Any Midwesterner knows that this isn’t the real spring, just a preview of coming attractions, a teaser. But, it’s a bright, sunny day — a good day for a walk, notice the birds, and think about the coming year, not just clean the road-crud out of the garage. There’s a little smell of mud in the air, which makes me hope that the real spring is only about a month away, that soon we can peel off the layers, stretch, and open the windows.

I remember a passage from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, where Pecola is walking home from school on a similar false-spring day. She and her friend have balanced their coats up on to their heads, so they’re not really wearing them, but they don’t have to carry them either. I remember many walks home from school, doing the same thing, enjoying the warm-ish breeze.

Me at 3

Me at 3

The main theme of The Bluest Eye, is the cultural ideal of beauty (blonde, blue-eyed, white) shown through Pecola’s obsession with her Shirley Temple mug and her relationship with her distant mother and abusive father. Many girls felt (still feel?) the pain of not looking like the ideal. Although not as overt or racist, my red hair, green eyes, and freckles made my looks exceptional. As a child, all you want is to fit in and be accepted. Once an adult, I understood and came to prize my rare coloring, as I know Ms. Morrison came to value hers, too.

Poetry Speaks

Poetry Speaks

A few months ago, I listened to Poetry Speaks, a book with great poets reading their own works and accompanying text. While reading along with the poets, I noticed most of the time they spoke words that were different from the published version of the poem. The more I write, the more I’ve come to understand why that is. Perhaps there are some writers/artists that can create and walk away from the product. Not me, nearly every time I review a poem, I change some word.

Most weeks I submit poems for my writing group to critique. Every time it’s pleasure and pain. They are wonderful, bright writers and are always kind with their criticism. They never fail to zing me on a poem that I knew wasn’t good enough — even I wasn’t happy with — like they did last night for my poem, The Idea of Home. 

Another of the poems they reviewed last night is posted earlier on this blog under “What happened to the dress?” I weigh all their input. Some recommendations I use; some recommendations I just shrug off. Here is the latest version of that poem, new title (thank you, Susan), and all. Read the rest of this entry »

Speaking with a self-described starving artist recently, I wondered if pay influences the outcome of art. By art I mean, all forms of creative expression (painting, photography, music, writing, etc.). My initial response is yes, it does. For evidence I point to most artist’s second major work and the infamous sophomore curse. I could tick off many examples, but it’d be just mean to list them. I’m trying to decide, though, if it’s the money or the fame (ego) that kick-starts the curse. Perhaps money and fame have a synergistic effect on the artist that can’t be separated or replicated in a control study. Maybe someone will point-out an example where an artist received loads of money and fame from a first work and their subsequent work was better than the first.

There are many examples where the second work is sub-par (that bar was pretty darn high, though), but the third and later are excellent, and the artist goes on to produce a great body of work. Is J.K. Rowling an example? Probably not, since she had the entire series of Harry Potter mapped out before the first book was published.

Many writers I know state a goal of being able to live off their writing and leave their “real jobs” someday. Now that I’ve started submitting poems for publication (ah! the fame of a literary journal!) and the reward of pay or contest winnings, I wonder how my own writing will be influenced once I get paid for a poem. I keep a detailed listing of initial draft dates, final draft dates, and submission dates. Of course, I can not be a legitimate experiment because of my beliefs that pay will influence me and my awareness of the issue (Heisenberg principle at work).

Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.