January 2017 Inside ▪ Judith Arcana on radio and poetry▪ Always worth celebrating: William Stafford birthday▪ Pain and transformation▪ Writing pr

Kickstart Your Writing Green

January 2017



Judith Arcana on radio and poetry
Always worth celebrating: William Stafford birthday
Pain and transformation
Writing prompt: Library memories
Market tip: Match what you already have to a specialized market
Nerdy Words: Wrong again! (about “from … to”)
Showcase: “Baked” by Catherine Magdalena

Judith Arcana  by Jonathan Arlook

Judith Arcana (photo by Jonathan Arlook)

Judith Arcana on radio and poetry

Joining us for a Q&A this month is Portland writer Judith Arcana, who hosts the radio show “Poetry and Everything” on KBOO community radio (90.7 FM in Portland) on the fourth Monday of the month at 10:00 p.m. Arcana’s work has been published by a range of presses, from Doubleday to Shameless Hussy. Her books include Here from Somewhere Else (recipient of the summer 2015 Editors Choice Poetry Chapbook Award by Turtle Island Quarterly), Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture (winner of Minerva Rising’s inaugural prose chapbook contest), What If Your Mother (a book of poems about reproductive justice and motherhood), and Grace Paley’s Life Stories (a literary biography of Grace Paley).

What inspired you to start the radio show “Poetry and Everything”?
I can’t claim this as inspiration. When Barbara LaMorticella stopped doing her show (after many years and much poetry), I was offered this once-a-month gig. KBOO also has poets Patrick Bocarde and Walt Curtis on the air, and Turiya Autry’s performance/poetry show. KBOO is serious about supporting and encouraging poetry and poets.

What appeals to you about radio as a medium for poetry?
This seems an obvious connection to me: Poetry “works” both on the page and in performance. Poetry’s elements—lyricism, alliteration, rhyme, rhythm and more—can be perfect for radio, just as the elements of music and theater can be. The fact that literary language can be exciting in other ways—e.g., in silent reading or with visual impact on the page—doesn’t lessen the excitement of radio as a platform for verse.

Poetry is both a written and an aural form that sometimes is dense and complex. Does this create challenges on the radio show, when you hear a poem just once, sometimes for the first time?
I’ve never thought of density and complexity as “challenges” except in relation to responsibility, by which I mean that when we perform poetry for an audience we are responsible to that audience: We’ve got to do a good job, like any other performer. Also, on the most practical level, the show is available online after it first airs, so that anybody anywhere can listen anytime—as many times as they like—for as long as the Net lasts and people have access to it.

For you, how do the pleasures of reading and hearing poetry differ from those of writing poetry?
Writing poetry is part of my job, so to speak: Writing is my work. I make art with words, in poetry and prose, just as if I were a sculptor who sometimes works in stone, sometimes in clay. As a sculptor I would see, and maybe touch, other people’s work, examining their craft and methods. And, when lucky, I could be swept away by its skill, or power, or poignant effects. That’s what reading, or being in another writer’s listening audience, is like for me. I learn from my colleagues and all who’ve come before me—and I want to be touched, even transported, by their writing. (It’s also true that, sometimes, while I’m working—again, when lucky—I am indeed transported; I’m living inside the work, in a trance, with no sense of time passing.)

What are the biggest misconceptions people commonly have about poetry?
I don’t know, but your question makes me think about this: In the United States (though rarely if ever elsewhere), people often say poetry is “difficult,” and say they “don't understand” it. Many consider poetry esoteric. But poetry is so various, and always growing more various (rap! spoken word!), that this “misconception” makes me sad. What a loss!

Is there such a thing as good poetry and bad poetry? Why or why not?
We all make judgements about the art we take in—e.g., six of us see a movie and four think it’s “good” while two think it’s “bad.” Some of us are more knowledgeable than others about various arts (or anything, really—carpentry, driving a car, whatever), and those knowledgeable folks —if they’re not being jerks about it, can educate those of us who don't know as much as they do. I remember—with enormous pleasure—an art history teacher who, in 1966, taught me about the standards medieval and renaissance painters had set for themselves, their goals, and the techniques they used—including what they, the artists, thought was “good” and “bad.” Often, when people don’t like something, they say it’s “bad,” but what they really mean is, they don’t like it.

I’ve heard you read funny poems before, but I seldom see humorous poems in print. Is there a bias against humorous poetry, or do I just need to read more widely?
I don't know if there’s a bias, per se, but—with the exception of Shakespeare—people in the United States do tend to think that funny poetry is less valuable or important than serious poetry. I’m currently having an experience that’s been surprising me: I had some cancer in the past few years, and naturally assumed I’d write about that. Turns out that not only have I written almost nothing about it, most of what I have written is funny. I sure didn’t set out to have that happen, but there it is.

As we start a new year and a new U.S. presidency, what role do you hope poetry will play in public life in 2017?
I hope it will play the same role it always has: Poetry has the capacity to move us, to make us feel and think and act. All over the world, for countless centuries, people have named their babies with poetry, buried their dead with poetry, and marched into battle with the words of poets in their minds or on their lips. Poetry can speak fiercely to and for us—indeed, it can be so powerful that poets have been banished, tortured, imprisoned and killed for the impact of their work.

I guess we’re lucky that, here in the United States, the people who have the power to banish, torture, imprison and kill us don’t take poetry seriously. One of the frequently brandished “proofs” that poetry has no such power is the careless misuse of W.H. Auden's words—quoting only the phrase “poetry makes nothing happen”—while ignoring the rest of the stanza in which that line appears; it ends with “[poetry] survives,/A way of happening, a mouth.” (And this folly always reminds me of the similar, and excessively frequent, quoting of Frost to say the opposite of what he’s saying: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” and so forth—but now I’m way off the subject!)

What can we expect from you in 2017, either on the radio show or as a writer?
I’ve got a poetry collection coming out this year from Flowstone, the new imprint of Oregon’s Left Fork Books. The title is Announcements from the Planetarium. Also, I’m hoping to be able to put in more time on a prose nonfiction book I began a couple years ago. It’s kinda/sorta memoir, but I’m not yet sure about the form.

On the KBOO show, of course, I’ll offer the work of—and conversation with—more poets. The January 2017 show, in keeping with Oregon's annual celebration of William Stafford in his birthday month, will focus on his work and other poems that reflect his in various ways. Two fine performers from Portland’s theater community are the readers: James Dixon and Kathleen Worley.

William Stafford

William Stafford

Always worth celebrating: William Stafford birthday

By Ann Sihler

Oregon poet and pacifist William Stafford died in 1993, but he and his work are always worth celebrating, as Portland writers and readers do every January, the month of his birth. Born on January 17, 2014 (on the eve of the War to End All Wars), Stafford exemplified the values of gentleness, fearlessness, and wisdom as an artist, teacher, and person.

Stafford was a conscientious objector during WWII and nearly lost his life because of it. He moved to Oregon in 1948 to teach at Lewis and Clark College. In 1963 he made his literary mark with Traveling Through the Dark, which won the National Book Award for Poetry. He later served as poet laureate for the United States and for Oregon. Over the decades Stafford became dear to the people of Portland, especially its writers, for his openheartedness and the truth, wisdom, and accessibility of his writing.

Stafford’s habits, view, and unconventional teaching style are legendary among writers. He rose early every day to write, alone in the dark, creating more than 20,000 poems this way during his lifetime. As a teacher he eschewed grades and held off from judging his students’ work. Instead, he described aspects of their writing, its characteristics, and his reactions to it. When pressed about quality, he turned the question around, asking “What do YOU think?” Stafford had an amazing ability to listen to people — to be present and open with others. My mother took a class from him in the ‘50s and remembers him as unfailingly kind.

As a writer and person, I draw courage from Stafford’s example -- of how he was with others, and how completely open he was to his experience in creating poetry. Do we not all need living examples like this?

To learn more about Stafford, take part in one of the local birthday celebrations or read his book on writing poetry, Writing the Australian Crawl.

Sunday, January 22, 2:36 p.m., Oregon Fellowship of Reconciliation
Monday, January 23, 10:00 p.m., KBOO, 90.7 FM
Thursday, January 26, 7:00 p.m., Eliot Chapel, First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon

Pain and transformation

In her recent blog post, Kickstart publisher Nancy Woods describes how a favorite destination in her childhood—the local library—became a source of pain, and how a cousin used his own pain to transform himself from annoying to endearing.

Writing Prompt

Writing prompt: Library memories

What library did you use when you were young? Describe the building, inside and out. Do you remember a particular librarian from that time in your life? What role did books and libraries play in your childhood?

Market tip: Match what you already have to a specialized market

By Ann Sihler

Early in my writing career, I won a writing contest with one of my first submissions and received actual cash money as a prize. My secret? I submitted not to a general contest but to a specific one—one that accepted essays only on a sport or hobby. By chance, I had just written an essay on tai chi, so I submitted it and won the contest.

Who knows? Maybe I was the only contestant. Either way, I had an advantage in that I was competing only with other people who had written essays about sports or hobbies, not with everyone who has written an essay on any topic. In this case, I made the numbers game work for me, instead of against.
I have gotten my work published this way, too: by finding markets that were looking for poems on specific topics I already had written about, such as sex, illness, and mothers.

I found those markets through friends (thanks, writing group!), but also by scanning websites that list markets seeking specific types of work. For example, Poets and Writers and Places for Writers this month list markets for the following:

Speculative fiction by queer people of color (Anathema: Spec from the Margins)
Personal essays on health and health care (The American Journal of Nursing)
Fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction on displacement, movement, or home (The Dallas Review)
Poems based on a single work of art (Ekphrasis)
Creative writing and other artwork by first-generation college goers (First-Gen Voices)
Poetry related to humanity and environmental consciousness (The Kerf)
Art, design, and cultural criticism that concerns migration and exile (Full Bleed)
Poetry, nonfiction, and art with multi-cultural elements (Out of Many Magazine)
Poetry by people with mental illness (Rattle)

Are you a queer person of color or a first-generation college student? Do you have a mental illness? Have you written about health or home, migration or multi-culturalism? Has looking at a piece of visual art inspired you to write a poem? If so, there is a market for you that is not open to many other writers, and you may be very competitive.

Especially if you are just starting out, trying to get your first clips, do not let these opportunities pass you by! If your work falls into a specialized category, you have an edge just by being who you are and having thought and written what you already have thought and written. Relatively few people can say the same, so the odds of your work being accepted are higher than if you were submitting to a more open market.

The narrower the market, the better, so celebrate your uniqueness and submit!

Nerdy Words

Nerdy Words: Wrong again! (about "from ... to")

By Ann Sihler

Is it better to be uncertain, second-guessing yourself all the time before finding out that you were, indeed, correct, or to boldly and confidently proclaim what is correct and then find out that you are wrong, yet again?

I’m not which approach is best, but as a professional editor I seem to be working mostly on the latter. My pronouncements about correct grammar and usage inspire confidence in my clients, especially when I offer appropriate explanations and examples. But sometimes I’m just plain wrong.

For example, I always thought that the correct way to use the construction “from … to” is to choose two examples that represent the extremes of what you’re talking about, such as “from start to finish,” “from ants to elephants,” “from initial itch to final cure.” The examples are the furthest poles on the continuum, and everything in-between is implied.

That makes the “from … to” construction a giant spreading of the arms that encompasses everything. The writer’s challenge is to find the two widest and most interesting examples.

But these days I’m seeing “from … to” used quite differently, as in this example from Ta-Nehisi Coates (from “My President Was Black: A History of the First African American White House—And of What Came Next” in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of The Atlantic):

“The Obamas are fervent and eclectic music fans. In the past eight years, they have hosted performances at the White House by everyone from Mavis Staples to Bob Dylan to Tony Bennett to the Blind Boys of Alabama.”

Are there too many musicians listed here for you, as there are for me? I would have suggested something more like “they have hosted performances at the White House by everyone from Yo-Yo Ma to Guns and Roses,” with it understood that a diverse group of other musicians—all of whom fall somewhere between Yo-Yo Ma and Guns and Roses—also performed.

Apparently, though, I am out of step. Everywhere I look I am finding examples of “from … to” used the way Coates did: with a number of colorful examples that express range through a longish list, rather than through the two extremes of a continuum.

Consider this quote, from the December 27, 2016, issue of Grist (online, at http://grist.org/briefly/elections-expert-says-north-carolina-is-no-longer-a-democracy/):

“This less-than-stellar democracy has its share of suffering already, ranging from wildfires to floods to toxic coal ash spills and millions lost in state revenue after passing HB2, [the] anti-transgender bathroom bill.”

Here, I might have dispensed with the “from … to” construction altogether and just said “This less-than-stellar democracy has its share of suffering already, including wildfires, floods, toxic ash spills and millions lost in state revenue after passing HB2, the anti-transgender bathroom bill.”

But no. The writer here prefers “from … to,” even though he or she is not talking about alpha-to-omega extremes.

Originally for this column I thought I’d contrast a quote of what I thought was the right way to use “from … to” with the quotes above, but I couldn’t find an example I considered correct. The more I read, the more examples of the new way of using “from … to” I found, like this one, from William Darity, Jr. (from “How Barack Obama Failed Black Americans,” The Atlantic. December 22, 2016, available online at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/how-barack-obama-failed-black-americans/511358/):

“Indeed, the history of black wealth deprivation, from the failure to provide ex-slaves with 40 acres and a mule to the violent destruction of black property in white riots to the seizure and expropriation of black-owned land to the impact of racially restrictive covenants on homeownership to the discriminatory application of policies like the GI Bill and the FHA, created the foundation for a perceptual racial wealth gap.”

Here we have a history of black wealth deprivation that goes from failure to (1) destruction, to (2) seizure and expropriation, to (3) the impact of covenants, to (4) discriminatory application of policies. Whew! Maybe this usage is incorrect in my book, but it sure packs a wallop!

The truth is, there is not much in written English usage that is firmly, permanently, irrevocably correct or incorrect. What is correct depends on who you are, who you are writing for, when, and why. As those things change, so does what is correct and incorrect.

Like social mores (In the age of email, texts, and Twitter, do you really have a whole year to send a thank-you card for that wedding gift?), rules for grammar and usage shift over time, sometimes leaving people like me “wrong again” until we shift to catch up.

Although it may be frustrating at times not to have definitive answers as to what’s right and wrong in writing, the challenge of parsing it all out is one of the pleasures of working with a living language.

Student Showcase

Student showcase:

“Baked” (excerpt) by Catherine Magdalena

For several years, writer Catherine Magdalena managed an old hotel in downtown Portland that had been beautifully renovated to house 95 seniors and people with disabilities in subsidized studio apartments. She originally was motivated to take the job to shake people’s stereotypes of poverty, and because she was excited about historic preservation and the non-profit organization that owned the building. Once there, she found that property management offers a diversity of experience and an endless smorgasbord of writing material. The following excerpt was originally published in BeLonging, an anthology by the Woodshop Writers.

I walked by the community kitchen on my way to the maintenance office and slowed to a halt. My eyes landed on the back of Wayne’s head, with its close-cropped hair and glimmering bald spot. He sat cross legged like in a meditation pose directly facing the oven door, his eyes in line with the window of the warm world inside. The oven light was on, and I could see the outline of a cake pan.
Wayne was still wearing his cartoon pajama bottoms displaying burn holes from smoking and the history of everything he had consumed during the past several days.

I felt a moment of gratification that the rug I had brought from home to give the kitchen a homier feel appeared to be doing just what I had intended, even though it hadn’t been cleaned lately.

“I am done with drugs,” Wayne had announced a week before baking his first cake in the community kitchen. “I am going to get sober and do something with my life, maybe get a job and donate money to this place. I’ve taken so much, I want to give back.”

Wayne had proclaimed his newly found convictions at the front desk as I was checking the Incident Log from the previous night. The front desk was the hub of the lobby looking out through large picture windows facing the busy urban street. The vantage point of this large oval desk was just left of the front door to enhance monitoring of the goings-on of the building.

This setting was anything but a place for solitude and focus. It was where residents came to spill their truth, seek safety or a reprieve from their loneliness.

Wayne had talked for several minutes about his new self-enlightenment. After hearing about his best-intentioned future, I walked back to the office, where I came upon James, the assistant manager, sitting at his desk with tears streaming down his face. He obviously had overheard the conversation.

“Did Wayne just tell you that he smokes drugs in his subsidized apartment?” James said, choking back his laughter.

James’ good humor lightened my spirit and smoothed out the frown lines on my forehead. I hadn’t even thought of where Wayne was doing drugs. I was enamored watching the convictions pour out of him. It seemed so pure.

Perspective is key to surviving in this busy business of property management. The humorous reprieve was priceless.

Nancy and Ann

A Nancy Woods production

Thanks for reading Kickstart, which is a publication of Nancy Woods—author and writing coach. If you have any comments about Kickstart, feel free to email them to Nancy or her newsletter sidekick (aka editor), Ann Sihler.

Scribbles loops newsletter