Sunday, January 27, 2013

Poetry: Really, it's not that hard!

For the past couple of years, I've been reading at least one or two poems nearly every morning. I'm reading an eclectic mix of poets, from Shakespeare, Whitman, and Longfellow to Ted Kooser, Linda Pastan, and William Stafford. Through poetry, I'm discovering new worlds, exploring new ways to express emotion, and developing and fine-tuning my own literary tastes.

If all of this sounds complicated and arduous, and makes me sound impressive and erudite—as if I have an extensive library filled with leather-bound volumes of verse, where I settle myself ceremonially in an armchair, switch on my green-shaded brass lamp, and don my reading glasses—let me dispel that idea. What I have are paperback copies of Garrison Keillor's three Good Poems anthologies, and I keep them in the one room of the house I'm certain to visit every morning.

Yes, I confess: I read poetry in the bathroom.

(My mother read Time magazine in the bathroom. In fact, I'm not sure she ever read it anywhere else. Each week, the new issue was carried into the bathroom as soon as it arrived, and remained there until it had been read cover to cover. As a result, when I was growing up, I also read Time almost exclusively in the bathroom. If I visited a friend's house and saw an issue of Time on the coffee table, it seemed out of place to me, like a roll of toilet paper left out on the kitchen counter.)

Because I'm partial to the poets of New England—Robert Frost, of course, and Donald Hall, and Maxine Kumin—I'm surprised to learn how much poets from other parts of the country have to say, and how their poems resonate with me. Even though I've never visited the Northwest, the words of Raymond Carver take me there. When I read Wendell Berry, there I am on a farmhouse porch in Kentucky at dusk.

But I have a lifelong allegiance to New England, and to Maine in particular, and the Maine poets—native or adopted—are among my most revered. Wesley McNair, Stuart Kestenbaum—I've heard and read them, here and there, for years now. Philip Booth, Alice Persons, and Kristen Lindquist are new-to-me favorites. (Thanks, Garrison, for performing the introductions.)

I have to admit, though, that until the Big Announcement came out a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of Richard Blanco, the poet chosen to create and read an original poem at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. (He doesn't appear in any of the Good Poems anthologies—the first thing I did when I heard the news was check. I suspect—I hope!—that will be rectified when Garrison puts together his next anthology.)

As it turns out, Richard Blanco lives in Bethel, the next town north of mine. “Holy crap!” I yelled, charging into the den to read the news story to my husband and son. “They've announced the inaugural poet! He's a gay Cuban-American and he lives in Bethel, Maine!”

“There's a poet that famous living in Bethel?” said my husband.

“There's a gay Cuban-American living in Bethel?” said my son.

Bethel is a town of about 2000 people. Blanco has been living there for over three years. He's the co-chair of the planning board there; I'm a selectman here in Greenwood. He apparently gets his hair cut right around the corner from my house. Wouldn't you think our paths might have crossed by now?

Sadly, no. But that hasn't stopped me from adopting him wholeheartedly as my new favorite neighbor. Becoming a fan of his Facebook page. Reading every article and interview I've seen about him since he so suddenly became famous. Ordering his most recent book, Looking for the Gulf Motel. Hoping that, once the uproar settles down a bit, he'll do a reading close to home (and sign his book for me).

A lot of people say they “don't get poetry.” After Richard Blanco gave his reading at the inauguration last week, there was, predictably, something of a backlash: people who dismissed poetry in general with a wave of annoyance and words to this effect: “I don't get poetry, I'll never get poetry, so poetry is irrelevant and stupid.” (Or this whine, on Twitter: “What ever happened to a rhyming poem? This poem at the Inauguration doesn't rhyme at all. It was a glorified term paper.”)

Maybe a lot of people have been unduly traumatized by poetry in their past. They've been forced to read, or, worse, read and analyze, poems that actually are complex, obscure, hard to get. When I was in college, I had to write a paper analyzing Wallace Stevens' poem, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” I wasn't at all sure I was getting the meaning that Stevens intended, but, fortunately, the poem was enigmatic enough to preclude a “one right answer” sort of analysis, and my professor probably wasn't any more confident about it than I was.

Garrison Keillor, in his introduction to Good Poems: American Places, says, “Americans are impatient with riddles and so they give poetry a wide berth, knowing from Miss Fernwood's 8th grade English class that a page of writing with an uneven right margin means a series of jokes with no punch lines, a puzzle with no right answers.”

But, like the majority of the poetry I read, Richard Blanco's “One Today” is not a difficult, inscrutable poem. It is beautiful, heartfelt, and easy to understand. It's very much a “public poem.” If you missed it, read it, or listen to it: it's about unity. (There, that wasn't so hard, was it?) 

As Blanco himself said in an interview with Joe Coscarelli for NY Magazine, “I pride myself on creating work that's accessible....Honestly, I think the poem was even more straight-forward than I typically write.”

That's why I found the knee-jerk I-just-don't-get-it response particularly annoying. (Even my poetry-baffled husband's reaction was positive: “I like it. I get it, and I like it.”) And no reaction was more irritating than Eric Cantor's carefully composed confused expression (and occasional actual lip-curling sneer) throughout the reading.

I don't believe Cantor actually listened to a word of the poem, because if he did listen to it, and he really didn't get it, then we should be seriously rethinking how we assess the intelligence of the people we entrust to run the country. No, instead, I think he had spent the previous evening practicing in a mirror to perfect his “what is this shit, anyway?” expression.

Blanco himself was more charitable. Asked about Cantor's obvious disdain, he said, “Maybe he was just in deep contemplation and overwhelmed with emotion.”

Or maybe Cantor has just never gotten over eighth grade English class.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Why introverts love Facebook

Today is World Introvert Day, something I didn't learn until quite late in the day. Too late to throw a big party or anything like that, but not too late to share it on Facebook. I posted a link to, which garnered some amusing feedback from other introverts. 

My best friend Lulu (who shared the link with me) said she wished she could have celebrated World Introvert Day by spending it under her desk.

Belinda said, “We could have had a party and then found excuses not to go.”

Peggy said that explained why she hadn't wanted to do anything but curl up on the couch with a book today.

Burns asked if I had read Susan Cain's book Quiet (I have), prompting a discussion about the book's premise that most of the world is geared toward extroverts, and about some of the ways introverts have found to cope (like the college professor who retreats to the same stall in the men's bathroom for some much-needed alone time after each lecture).

I resurrected and posted a Dilbert cartoon from a few years ago:

Lulu remarked that World Introvert Day “is more an 'Understand Your Introvert' movement, but introverts already understand each other and extroverts just think we're no fun.”

I'll admit it: I love Facebook.

Facebook may have stolen my privacy, my self-respect, and more precious hours of my time than I care to contemplate, but it has given me something in return: a way to be connected to other like-minded human beings that doesn't require me to actually Go Among the People.

I don't need to go to parties and have seventeen stilted and pointless conversations before accidentally discovering that someone shares my point of view about something. All I need to do is post a photo of turkeys made from Oreos and malted milk balls, or my adorable cats (let's just admit that they're the cutest cats in the world, OK?), or a link to EqualityMaine or The Daily Show, and I discover, almost instantly, who among my acquaintances shares my passion for “Fun With Food,” or cute cats, or leftist causes.

Facebook has allowed me to become a member of not one but several on-line communities of writers, to chat with other people who believe Kris Kristofferson is the greatest American singer-songwriter ever (and not just that old guy who plays Whistler in the Blade movies), to learn more about local history directly from people who have lived some of it than I ever would have gleaned if I'd had to do the research myself.

These people are my “friends.” Yes, Facebook tosses that term around rather lightly, especially to someone like me who has mostly subscribed to Henry Brooks Adams' theory that “One friend in a lifetime is much; two are many; three are hardly possible.”

I have one hundred and seventy-two Facebook friends. I rarely, if ever, have exchanges with most of them. But others—some of them people I've never met, others people I've known “in person” for years but with whom I'd never really had a meaningful conversation—have revealed themselves, through the magic of Facebook, to be perceptive, funny, intelligent deep thinkers.

Many of them are introverts, like me. If we met at the post office, our conversation would most likely be limited to observations about the weather, or to inquiring about each other's kids. If we felt we knew each other well enough, one of us might bring up the Red Sox, but that's about as deep as it would go.

On Facebook, though, we've engaged in earnest discussions of politics, gun control, same-sex marriage, cute pets, and how to make a snowman out of cheese balls. And introversion.

I've found that many introverts love Facebook, for the same reasons I do.

Extroverts use Facebook to reconnect with old friends, and they post things like, “I’ll be back in town next weekend. Let's get together!” or “I miss your face—haven't seen you in too long! Gotta fix that!” 

Introverts, on the other hand, like Facebook because it gives us our “people fix” without requiring us to actually be around people.

By the way, extroverts will tell you that this is unhealthy and everyone should “get out more.” Ignore them. They don't get us. They also don’t get where they’d be without us.

“And let's not forget,” says the website for World Introvert Day, “that although introverts might be a minority, they are a majority in the gifted population. Most famous scientists, philosophers, artists and thinkers are introverted. Introverts shape the world we live in.”

No, let's not forget that.

(I should add that texting, along with Facebook, is an absolute godsend for introverts. Not only do we now not need to actually see people to communicate with them, we don't even have to talk to them on the phone. This is another thing extroverts don't get. Text an extrovert more than once or twice in a row, and your phone will probably ring and you'll hear, “I figured I might as well just call.” No, wrong. Don't be offended, but if I wanted to talk to you, I wouldn't be texting.)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

'Tis the season...for resolutions

I want to be a writer. I want to be a writer more than anything else in the world. I've wanted to be a writer since I was about six years old. Sometimes I call myself a writer, just trying it on for size, hoping it will stick, like an affirmation, the way I might tell myself, “My house is clean and organized,” “I really only like healthy foods,” or “I am confident and self-assured.” (None of those have ever actually worked for me, either, but I keep trying.)

Sometimes other people call me a writer, and when that happens, it's so exciting and fulfilling that it sometimes makes me giddy for days at a time. Like when I met Meredith Hall, the author of the best memoir I have ever read, at a reading at the library, and she signed my copy of her book, Without A Map, “To Amy, a fellow writer.” Wow! Or when I overheard the library director tell a patron, “The writers are meeting downstairs this morning.” That's my writing group, six late-middle-aged women who have been meeting monthly at the library for nearly two years now to share what frustrates, exhilarates, hinders, and inspires us in our writing lives. We've become each other's confidantes, critics, and cheerleaders. We're writers.

I talk about writing, read about writing, think about writing, dream about writing. I subscribe to two writing magazines and own a few dozen books about writing. I devour every NPR offering that features a writer sharing what inspires her, talking about her writing process, reading from her work.

My desk is cluttered with books of writing prompts, a thesaurus, a dictionary. My bulletin board features inspirational quotes like, “[Writing a novel] is like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way” (E.L. Doctorow), and “Nulla dies sine linea” (“Not a day without a line”), and “Butt in chair!”

Writing fires me up, calms me down, challenges me, assures me that I am good at something. It gives me an outlet for pent-up anxiety and frustration and anger, as well as a way to express the more tender sentiments I often struggle to verbalize. Writing connects me to my authentic self: I am most myself when I am writing.

The problem is, I don't actually write much.

The reasons are many. A few of them are even somewhat valid. I'm busy. I work. I cook from scratch and can't bring myself to do it any other way. I don't live alone, and I'm very easily distracted. I'm committed to a daily exercise program and I floss my teeth every single day, and, geez, it's hard to find time for everything.

But the biggest problem is probably the way I've always regarded my writing: as a form of entertainment, a fun thing I can do if I have time. But who ever has extra time? Writing has been my reward for getting the floors vacuumed, the dishes done, the laundry caught up, the junk drawer organized...and if you've ever seen my house, you know the likelihood of those things actually happening regularly.

Obviously, I need to change my thinking. I need to make writing a priority. Maybe I need to post a new quote, like this one from Margaret Laurence: “When I say work, I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.”

So, New Year's Resolution #1: I will take my writing at least as seriously as I take the vacuuming, the dishes, and the laundry. And, dammit, more seriously than the junk drawer!