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Taking a Risk


I took advantage of an offer from a poetry journal to submit five poems and, in addition, in exchange for $20, I would receive comments on the poems within a few days plus a copy of their journal.  So I picked some poems I liked and thought were finished and a couple I thought still needed work.

The comments came back within three days.  The email started and ended with friendly enthusiasm but in the middle were snarky and sometimes contradictory comments on each poem.

The poems included one that used the concept of Wabi Sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that things are transient and imperfect.  I wrote about making an error in a piece of needlework and I said, but the Japanese are intentional, meaning an artist may include an error on purpose, whereas my error was just that, an error.

The Editors said, “… we collectively cringe slightly at the cultural references in this one, especially the so self-assured pronouncement, ‘Japanese are intentional.’ Without knowing much about the poet, it’s hard to say whether such a statement is earned, or not.”

Then they said, “We like the central idea in this piece, the intentional inclusion of error in human-made work to reflect the (“non”-intentional, though inevitable) imperfection of the universe.”

Am I wrong to think those comments are contradictory?  Whatever.  What really annoyed me was the comment about my so self-assured pronouncement that Japanese are intentional.  Reading that, I reached for my keyboard to send a response, but then I stopped, took a breath and decided the best I could do was to let it go.

But the comments reminded me of recent controversies in the art world where an artist is criticized for making an artwork that is about another group’s culture.  In two examples, the artists withdrew their artwork from exhibit in one case and from future sale in the other.

Then, a friend recommended an acclaimed book of short stories by a Hispanic woman.  The first story I read was in the voice of an African American male.

Confused?  So am I.

However, I am thankful that The Editors decided that “…we are going to give the poet the benefit of the doubt on the cultural references, because to us, none of them rise to the level of actual appropriation”.

I ended up taking their advice to remove the wabi-sabi references and keep the ideas in the poem.  I have submitted it elsewhere, and we’ll see how it is received.



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Maze or Labyrinth?

These are photos of the shadow of a man working on our roof, which had to be replaced due to hail damage.  He looks like some imaginary creature pounding and waving, like a moving silhouette.

In the current issue of the Weekly Avocet, a journal of nature poetry, there is a poem of mine called Yellow Falls.  The poem is toward the end of the newsletter.  It’s about how the dazzle of yellow in autumn foretells the coming winter white. file:///C:/Users/Mary/Downloads/the%20weekly%20avocet%20-%20%23202%20(1).pdf

This week I learned the difference between a maze and a labyrinth in a description by Rebecca Solnit in her book, The Faraway Nearby.  Here’s what she says:

A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on a spool…it is the opposite of a maze, which has not one convoluted way but many ways and often no center…A maze is a conversation; a labyrinth is an incantation or perhaps a prayer…The end of the journey through the labyrinth is not at the center…but back at the threshold again:  the beginning is also the real end.

She goes on to compare a labyrinth to a spool of thread and to words and lines in a book.  “Imagine all the sentences in this book as a single thread around the spool that is a book”

These lines are a lovely coincidence since I recently prepared a tour of work by Katherine Kuehn who stitches words – poems, correspondence, journal entries – onto cloth and who turned to a ribbon as the ground for a page long, one-line poem.  The exhibit was called Close Reading:  Sewn Works. She, too, talked about the spooling and unspooling of words and how appropriate a ribbon is as the vehicle for words to flow.

Seasons are also a kind of labyrinth since we always come back to where we started.  The end of summer becomes the beginning of winter.  And winter will spool into spring.

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Poem a Day

urban-pumpkin Urban Pumpkin

First day of October.  I decide to write a poem a day this month. So far, so good.

On October 1, I made a list of nouns and a list of abstractions, like feelings.  The idea is to select one word from each list and write about what connects them.  I chose the pair, hair and hunger.

It’s not an easy case to make that hair and hunger are related in any way but that’s a poet’s job:  to help us see connections at the intersection of two disparate things.  So, in the poem, I become hungry for the hair I used to have, thick and colorful, in a world that is diminished, a world I cannot control.

Today, I wrote a poem for Rattle, which is dedicating an issue to Civil Servant Poets, poems by civilians who have spent “considerable”time working for a governmental agency.  It seems like it would be a boring topic unless you have watched House of Cards and realize how dangerous power games can be and how far down into the ranks they can reach.

Today I recalled the car salesman brought in to head up a social services agency and how he angered me with his pompous ignorance.  I was surprised to hear him say, years later, that it was the hardest job he’d ever had and how he took his worries about it home.  I guess that part must have surprised him.

I am going to try for three civil service poems by October 15.  Why, oh, why didn’t I save some of those old memos or emails??

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Golden Shovel Poems

Studio 2

This is a photo of my “studio.”  I took it to accompany a poem published by Postcard Poems and Prose.  Actually, I rarely sat here; I am at my computer most of the time.  But the idea of a desk with a typewriter and a few favorite things is very appealing to me.  Note the old Princess style phone and the Valentine made by an artist friend.  And the gargoyle from Oxford, England.

All of this has been upended by water in this basement room from a storm on July 21 that dumped three inches of rain in an hour.  Drywall had to be removed, insulation replaced and the carpet pulled up.  Repairs are underway, but it is doubtful this configuration will be repeated.  I have used the time to sort through things and make decisions about what to keep and what to toss as I re-prioritize what is important to me and what I need to have near.

As I write this, I know that people in Baton Rouge and other parts of Louisiana have lost everything due to torrential rains.  I do not feel sorry for myself at all for this minor hassle. I am grateful the damage here is contained and we have the resources to repair it.  Plus, I have had the opportunity to find many things to donate to St. Vinnie’s, The Sewing Machine Project and the local library.  If I did not want to part with something I thought maybe I could use, I kept a little and shared the rest.

This clean up has not particularly inspired poetry.  But I ran across a poem that was written in The Golden Shovel style that did inspire.  Golden Shovel poems rely on the words of a line of poetry, used as the last word of a line of new poetry.  If the line chosen has seven words, then the new poem will have seven lines.  I chose Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant -“

A Golden Shovel Poem After Emily Dickinson

I’m here to tell

you all

that the

only truth

I know is mine but

if I tell

you, it

will be slant.





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Memory Cloths


Memory Cloths is a movement started originally in South Africa by women who felt their stories had not been told during the truth and reconciliation period after Apartheid.  They started writing and drawing their stories on cloth – Memory Cloths.  The idea was picked up here by fiber artist Leslee Nelson.  I attended a workshop led by her and started my own story in stitch.  It shows the states I was born in (SD) and raised in (ND) and the Northern border with Canada, Western with Montana and in the East, Minnesota.  The coin in the upper right hand corner is the state coin for ND.    Leslee, being an artist, is more comfortable than I am with stitching small drawings.  I tried a cow and it was bad.  I am more comfortable with words.  When I stitch a poem, I will be sure to share it!



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Chipping Away At It

Pink Tulips

One of my favorite poems was re-published today in The Weekly Avocet, an on-line journal of nature poetry.  The poem is called Oak Savanna and was originally published in Solitary Plover.

I am running across more poetry journals that are interested in publishing previously published material.  Like spreading the wealth, I guess.

Here is a link to the newsletter; Oak Savanna is the second poem on the first page.  You will need to copy and paste the link into your browser.



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Bad Poem


Olbrich GardensSpring Flower Show

A poem by Calvin Trillin, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet” in The New Yorker triggered a huge reaction among poets, writers and especially Asians.

It is not a good poem.  I can imagine the scenario:  The New Yorker is doing a foodie issue and someone says, hey, we need a poem.  Call Cal, he’s good for it, and Cal complies, thinking – I believe he thinks – I can write something funny, about how easy it used to be to pick up Chinese and how it’s complicated now with all the different regional choices.

I will not summarize the Asian reaction other than to point to an article in the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, whose title is, “We Are in the Room, Calvin Trillin.”

Instead,  I started to think about what if someone wants to write a poem about food and thinks, gee, there are so many varieties of Chinese food.  I could write a funny poem, exaggerate the problem of too many choices.  Like when my husband goes to the store for Cheerios© or boxes of Triskets© and I say, just get Original – because there are too many choices.

I have a list of eight signs you’ve written a good poem.

The first sign is, “You’ve Tackled a Big Idea.”  I think that’s where Calvin went wrong.  His big idea was that “they” haven’t stopped generating provinces, each with a new kind of Chinese cuisine.  The word “they” immediately puts him in opposition to “we”:  non-Asian Americans.  And asking whether “they” have run out of provinces suggests the number of provinces are growing – and running “us” over.

I want to glorify the diversity of Chinese food, food we all enjoy, no matter how many or few provinces it comes from.  Chinese food is interesting, it sings with flavor and its textures are wonderful.

Could such a poem be written?  I don’t know.  Maybe no one can write about someone else’s culture anymore, including cuisine, without raising the question:  how do you know?  How do you know what it’s like to be me in your world?

But, if anyone ever asks Cal to write another poem about food, I hope he at least considers the joy of it.

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