Saturday, September 19, 2020

After the Inferno

Waking up this morning to almost-normal air quality, skies dim with clouds instead of smoke. Oh God, what a relief to hear rain in the middle of the night, night before last. The next day, everyone I talked to said "I've never been so glad to see rain."

This from Oregonians, whose usually think "high fire danger" means "fire somewhat more likely than death from hypothermia."


The wind started September 7th, Labor Day. Todd and I were cleaning up the kitchen. I vividly remember the kitchen window rattle-banging; I looked up and said "Here it comes," and we went on with what we were doing.

Later that evening the power went out for several hours. It was almost dark, so I went to bed. The next morning, there were continuing outages all over the metro area-- and worse, fires had spilled down the west flank of the Cascades everywhere.

It was windy all day Tuesday. By afternoon, I could still see blue sky to the north of our house, but the southern sky was roiling with smoke pouring up out of Clackamas County. We weren't yet the scene of the apocalyptic photos you may have seen: that was coming in the next few days, and we would soon wear the badge of "worst air quality in the world" for a day or two.

I sent "Are you safe?" emails to friends in the Santiam area, and friends in the Rogue Valley. (All safe, though some have lost homes and belongings.) All of Clackamas County was put on at least Level 1 evacuation: at one point, about two-thirds of the county was under "Go Now." Fire zones and attendant evacuation zones bloomed across the map of western Oregon like some awful kind of bright red blight.

Meanwhile we carried on with work and life... somehow. Intense, dirty smoke was with us for more than a week. People coughed and sneezed. Asthma and migraine attacks spiked, some from anxiety but mostly from the dirty air. Health professionals reported a surge in CPD emergencies of all kinds. People confessed to feeling unlocatable fear. Apparently we have an instinctive fear of the smell of smoke: who'd have thought?

Last weekend the weather forecasts began to call for rain in the Thursday/Friday timeframe. The forecasts were more than usually changeable, though. Fires on this scale make their own air masses, their own air movement, and can drive weather on a regional scale. It was clear there would be rain and thunder; not clear how much, where it would fall heavily, when it would arrive.

Early Friday morning I woke up to thunder. I lay awake and waited, and waited, and finally heard the first drops fall.

There was more drizzle Friday. Mid-morning, I took a break from work, made a cup of tea, and went out and sat on my front porch to watch the rain fall. The street and sidewalks were still full of leaves and twigs brought down by the wind, and the rain was soaking them down. Today I'm going to go rake and sweep, not because it really needs to be done, but because I need to get out of the house. I haven't been outside since the smoke got bad.

This will only get worse. God have mercy on us.

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

A Traveler’s Guide to the World of Dread

It’s a desert but there’s a huge river running through it. The water is red and full of skeletal fish.

All the rocks have faces. But only when seen from the corner of your eye. When you look straight at them, they just look like rocks.

The city wears a diadem of lightning and its skyline looks like mismatched teeth. Mostly it’s hidden by smoke. People here speak truth when they speak at all.

Don’t let anyone ask you to dance.

There’s a man here with stone skin and glass bones. His wife has no skin, but her bones are spring steel. They live in a house woven from shadows of trees they felled before the river turned red.

According to the law of this place, eating while standing is punishable by death. So is eating while sitting. The only safe way to eat is to let no-one see you.

In the market they sell baskets of nuts and bolts.

These people make what they call music by tapping wood against ceramic. Never ceramic against wood. That’s not music, they say: that’s just noise.

I thought I saw someone walking a giant vinegaroon on a lead, but it turned out to be a wall mural. When I looked again it was gone. This means the street should be safe to walk.

The only way out is through.

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Wind and Fire

Last night the East Wind     tore into town
a river of hot air     stinking of smoke
sucking wildfires     along in its wake.
Transformers popped      tree-limbs went down,

clouds of dust     leaves dead and living
went swirling westward     on the furnace blast.
In hot gusty dark     the city held fast
Morning would bring     weather more forgiving.

Today our students     struggle with devices.
Power is down     broadband is poky
wind still high     air hot and smoky.
Climate change brings     crisis upon crisis

streets cluttered with     arboreal debris
while families flee homes,     fire evacuees.

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Sunday, September 06, 2020

More Fun with Word Power

Have I mentioned I get obsessive when I'm stressed?

Last (half) week was the start of school. Always a busy time in my work life-- and this year, there's so much extra to do and we're making it up just as fast we can.

Anyway...

For a long time, I've been wondering how my word usage compares to other poets'. Not to brag, but I have a really large effective vocabulary compared to most English users. (Pardon a brief trip down memory lane: When we got back from Tanzania, I was planning to apply for college. I studied for the SATs. My mother and I went to a bookstore and picked up a study guide. I chose the "intermediate vocabulary" study guide, assuming it would be the right place to start. My mother glanced through it, and without saying anything, put it back on the shalf and handed me the advanced guide.)

I know a lot of words, and I'm not afraid to use them. Especially, I'm not afraid to use them in poems.

Is that good or bad? See my earlier thoughts about Gene Wolfe, and "doing more with less." Short answer: I don't know. It's all in what you're trying to accomplish. I like words.

I found a couple of sites that will take a text document and give you some word usage stats. Wordlist Maker and Character Count. (Note: Character Count does not count the number of characters that appear in a piece of fiction. I was disappointed.) They give slightly different results, which doesn't surprise me: you can get slightly different word counts out of different releases of Microsoft Word. I suspect a lot has to do with how they interpret plurals, contractions, posessives and the like.

I ran four texts through both of the above: High-Voltage Lines, Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable, the manuscript for The Day of My First Driving Lesson, and the current state of the manuscript of Dervish Lions. (Note: Dervish Lions went to the publisher a couple of weeks back: there will be an editing and book design phase starting shortly.)

Both WM and CC give a total word count and a count of distinct words. CC's counts are consistently higher, but the ratio of distict words to total words, for each of my manuscripts, was very close to the same according to WM as according to CC. CC also gives a count of words that are used only once, and a count of "difficult" words (the site meant to be used educationally).

According to CC, the percent of words that are used only once is highest for Driving Lesson (66%) followed closely by High-Voltage (65%). Country Well-Known scored a little lower at 63%. Dervish Lions came in substantially lower, at 54%.

Which means what?

My guess is that this ratio will tend to drop as the piece of text gets longer. (I would try it on Drumheart, but it might take a long time to process such a big piece of text.) The longer a document is, the more likely any given word is to be repeated at least once. Dervish Lions is 68 pages (including title page, contents, etc.) That makes it twice as long as Country and High-Voltage, both at 34 pages. Also, both Country and High-Voltage also feature formal poetry with a high degree of repetition-- villanelles, sestinas, and pantoums-- which would drive the percent used only once down. So it makes sense that Driving Lesson would have the highest percent used only once, out of these texts.

CC scored Country substantially higher for "difficult" words. The other three texts scored 26 - 27% difficult words: Country scored 30%. Alas, CC did not tell me which words were considered difficult.

This still doesn't tell me anything about how my work compares to other poets' work. Unless I'm willing to retype an entire chapbook (to say nothing of a book!) and dump it into Character Count just out of curiosity...

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Heirloom Rose

Heirloom variety with bright red blooms and a deep sweet scent
and thorns like stout hooked talons – you try to kill me
every time I get close. Ungrateful bitch,
even when you know I’m trying to help.

Like, trimming back the smoke tree the neighbors planted
right up against the fence line. You’d be smothered,
shaded to death, if I wasn’t handy with the pruning shears.

Or weed-eating around your brick ring. Though I suppose
you’ve no reason to care. You’re phytotoxic. Inside that ring
nothing grows but you.

I got sturdy leather gloves and long-handled clippers,
whacked out half your top growth while you growled and slashed.
I guess you could say it’s a mutually abusive relationship.
You came back in a stunning burst of bloom.

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Where Will You Turn

Where will you turn, when all your cities burn
Who’ll give you shelter from the flood
When they see you stand with your dripping dirty hands
With your hands all dripping red with blood?

Where will you hide, when all the ones who died
For your fear, your anger and your pride
Rise from the grave and ride upon the wave
And your heels are dragging in the tide?

If you lived by power, you should fear being weak
If you suffered from the cold, seek the warm
If you struck hard, if you oppressed the meek
If you lived in the wind, fear the storm.

Where will you run when justice finally comes
When justice comes to call at your door
Oh, the rock won’t hide you nor the oak stand beside you
On the day that the angels go to war.


Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Counter-protesting

Three years we've been facing off with Patriot Prayer downtown.

We shall not be moved.

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bone Fires

These fires are the size of small continents.
These fires create their own weather. They spawn fire tornadoes. They build pyrocumulus.
They make lightning the way trees make seeds.

These are not normal fires. They leave nothing in their wake. No wreckage. No bones. Just ash.
These fires suck air from fifty miles away
and leave you gasping. These fires smother an entire city with smoke.
These fires can choke you from a hundred miles away.
Smoke from these fires girdles the globe.

Fire can kill you faster than COVID. Smoke can kill you faster than either
or slow, slow scars in your struggling chest.
Fire can break your heart. Smoke can stop your heart. COVID can eat it away.

These fires call for a different kind of mask to save your breath.
These fires call for a different kind of hero to save your life.
These fires are burning on the bones of the dead.

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Manuscript construction

Someone asked me recently about putting together a manuscript. I realized it's been a different process for each of my collections, but there are some common threads that I think are important principles.

Revised and updated... because the train of thought continued on past the station!



Ultimately, the selection and order of the poems in a manuscript is a matter of feeling. This should not mean it’s mysterious and inexplicable, nor that it’s random or unimportant. Most of this post will be about how a poet can train, or develop, informed feelings about the order of poems in a manuscript.

Largely this happens through play. Play with your poems and get as familiar as possible with them, as individual poems and as a group. Be particularly aware of how it feels to read each poem after just having read the (tentatively) previous poem. Did the previous poem “leave a taste in your mouth,” and if so, does that taste clash or meld nicely with the taste of the current poem? Neither is wrong! As long as you recognize that interaction, you can decide whether it serves the purpose of your manuscript.

Here are some helpful steps:

Have an idea of your target length. If you’re planning to submit to a particular publisher, check their guidelines. In general, a full-length collection is expected to be between 60 – 100 pages of poetry, which does not include title page, table of contents, section title pages, dedications or acknowledgements. Chapbooks are shorter, usually at least 15-20 pages. Check the guidelines before you submit, as the above are very variable.

Remember that your length guideline will usually be number of pages, not number of poems. (Double-check.) Typically, every poem gets at least a page to itself. Longer poems may occupy more than one page. Standard paperback pages (the format in which most poetry books are published) are narrower than an 8 ½ x 11 Word document page, so some poems that appear to fit on one page in this format may run over when published. For these reasons, your page count will generally be equal to or larger than your poem count, and you may not be able to tell exactly what it is.

Word allows you to create documents that have approximately the same proportions as a paperback page, which can help you check some of your longer poems and see if they run over. If you’d like to try this, go to Page Setup and use the settings below:

 
 

Print out the candidate poems: a necessary step for most of us. I’m as opposed to killing trees as most people, but I simply have not found a way to manage this process on screen—and I have a big monitor and a laptop screen to work with. Print out more poems than you expect to include: I suggest anywhere from a third to a half again as many (if you plan to include 60 poems, a third again as many would be 80, half again would be 90). If you do have multiple-page poems among your candidates, you may want to staple them together so that the pages don’t get scattered as you move piles around.

Start strong and end strong. Put a knockout poem up front and a knockout at the end. This applies both to the collection as a whole, and to sections within the manuscript if there are any.

The first poem or first few poems are important to get the reader hooked. But I actually believe the last poem, or perhaps the last few poems, are more important than the first few. Because that's what the reader will remember. They may or may not remember the actual poems, but the feeling they have when they close the book, that ahhh... Nail that, and you've nailed the reader.

Put your poems into categories. The point is not necessarily that you would present the poems grouped by these categories. You might choose to. Or you might decide you should not let poems in the same category “sit together.” Or you may feel a certain category is unimportant. Here are some examples of categories:

  • ·         Structural elements: formal vs. free verse, long vs. short, long lines vs. short lines.
  • ·         Emotional content: happy vs. sad (that’s extremely simplistic: most poems are more complex).
  • ·         Type of imagery: I at one time grouped a significant number of poems into “burning” poems that incorporated vivid desert and fire imagery vs. “quenching” poems that included a lot of water, rain, and wind imagery.
  • ·         Goal orientation: poems that aim to convince, poems that simply narrate, poems that depict a moment or express a feeling.
  • ·         Narrative poems vs. lyric poems (full disclosure: I’ve never been able to arrive at a definition of lyric poetry that makes sense to me).
  • ·         Anything else you can think of!

Note that characteristics like length are not binary categories but spectrums. You could end up thinking in terms of long, medium, and short poems. You might order all your poems from longest to shortest, like the Suras of the Koran.

You may want to write on each poem, in a corner or on the back, what categories it belongs to.
As you put your poems into different stacks, you’ll observe ways that the categories reinforce each other, or cut across each other. You might find that almost all your long poems are lyric and almost all your short poems are narrative. That could make the one short lyric poem into a real standout.

Look for an arc. Arcs are likely to arise naturally from playing with categories. Again, just because there’s an arc, a natural progression, doesn’t mean you’re obliged to follow it. You might set up an arc, create the expectation that it will be followed, then deliberately disrupt it. This is the kind of surprise that we love in an individual poem – it can be created at a manuscript level as well. Here are some examples of arcs:

  • ·         Narrative: Poems might be arranged as a group of related events— not necessarily in chronological order. Consider arranging a group of events in reverse chronological order, like the movie Memento. Or consider if there is a key event that was the cause of many other events – is it more effectively presented as a flashback within a series of poems?
  • ·         Emotional progression: A collection that follows an emotional arc tells an emotional story, even if the poems may be about unrelated things or events. Consider the sequence of moods through which the reader will move as they read the poems is different orders.
  • ·         Pace: Poem length and line length can make a reading experience feel “faster” or “slower.” Short lines tend to slow a poem down, because the brain has to pause to process each line break. (The physical rate at which readers intake words may actually be higher, though, because the eye doesn’t have to scan back and forth as much.) Poets understand this well within poems, using long lines to create momentum and short lines to interrupt the flow and catch the reader’s attention. Consider how the literal change of pace between poems affects the reader.

As your manuscript begins to take shape, start manually numbering the pages. Use pencil, or use different colored pens and note which color goes with which revision. This way, if your stack gets scattered by accident, you won’t lose the work you’ve done. Renumber the pages when you’ve changed the order.

Random shuffle. If all else fails, throw the whole stack in the air and pick them up without looking.

Be prepared to revise poems. This is where all the playing that you’ve already done can really pay off. If you have a poem that seems strong on its own, but just doesn’t fit where you’re trying to put it in the manuscript, think about its place in a developing arc, or its category characteristics. That may give you ideas for a poem revision that will better suit the manuscript. If you do an extensive revision, you may want to print a fresh copy for your stack.

I’m not suggesting you should rewrite all your best poems to fit into some standard you’ve established for a manuscript. But you may end up having to make a choice between including a poem that sits really awkwardly with its neighbors, revising it, or…

Be prepared to discard poems. This is not “kill your darlings” advice. As an arc, manuscript, or section takes shape, it may not accommodate some poems that are, in your judgement, better than other poems. These poems may find a home in another part of the manuscript, or in a different manuscript. This is why you want to start with more poems in your heap than you expect to put in the manuscript.

If you haven’t guessed by now…

Most of the above is just to get you to spend a lot of time handling your poems, reading your poems, and thinking about your poems. This is how you develop awareness of your poems as a group, not just as individual poems. A manuscript, whether book-length or chapbook length, is an aggregate entity with emergent properties. Your readers will experience these properties, over and above their experience of individual poems. This aspect of the reader’s experience is yours to control, as much as any aspect of a single poem is.


Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Gold to Gold

Honeybees are harvesting pollen
from dandelions: gold to gold.

They fly heavily in bulging orange pantaloons,
stumble onto flat-topped Queen Anne’s lace,

fall to the ground and crawl in clover.
Mint offers nothing from tiny blue flower spikes.

Years ago before colony collapse disorder
made the news, we found a swarming hive

in a box of building supplies
on our front porch.

I’m ashamed to admit, we used insecticide—
we had a friend who was allergic—

didn’t feel we could take a chance. We didn’t know
beekeepers would come take them away for free.

This fall, I’ll plant lavender and sage
against the back wall where it’s sunny.

Next summer when they bloom
more bees will come.

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

COVID haiku

this brilliant wind
has not met safety standards
blows unencumbered
Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Yard notes

Deadheading the rose bush sure made a difference. It brought on a huge second wave of blooms. It's weird how when the flower fades, the twig below it dies back to the nearest fork, and sometimes a whole branch dies; but apparently, trimming away that yellow-brown dead matter is very stimulating.

It still tries to kill me every time I get near it.

*****

My peony bush has suffered for the last two years from what is probably Phytophthora blight. After flowering, the leaves and stems turn black, and then just die from the ground up. It's apparently caused by bad drainage.

So I cut down all the foliage and pulled out the brick ring, and raked away all the accumulated leaves, cut grass, etc. that had accumulated in and around the ring. There was a ton. I also made a cylinder out of wire mesh, and put it up inside the ring. I'm hoping that exposing the soil to sun and air for the rest of summer will knock the fingus down; that raking away the debris will improve drainage; and that keeping the leaves up off the ground will help evaporation. We'll see how it looks next summer. I may have to do this cleanup every year.

*****

While I was at it, I put a ring around the iris. Mind you, it's perfectly healthy and vigorous. It just made me sad that the flower spikes kept blooming, and then falling over and rotting on the ground. I'm hoping the ring can keep that from happening.

*****

Also I cleaned out most of the strip between the house and the concrete path that goes around two sides of the house. The south side tends to be dry and hot: I found some mint growing in the shady back corner, and transplanted it to the south side, and it seems happy. Come fall, I want to get some lavender seedlings and plant them on the south side as well. If I plant them after the fall rains start, I won't have to water until next summer.

The east side is more of a challenge. It doesn't get much sun. It also doesn't get much water-- the eaves block any direct rainfall, so the only moisture that goes there is whatever drains off the path. This is also sort of true on the south side, except that winter winds are usually from the south or west, and they drive direct rainfall into the strip and against the side of the house above the strip. We rarely get any wind from the east, and when we do, it's almost always with dry weather. (Apparently there's an ocean to the west of us, and a continent to the east!)

I tried some ferns, and I'm having to water to get them through the summer. Wonder if I should try xeriscaping? With very little sunlight? Hmm...

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Backfire

So the feds moved out and left us a weekend of smaller and mostly peaceful protests. After accomplishing what?

All it ever was, was a PR stunt. Trump and his administration wanted to convince people they could put down anything that looks like unrest, anywhere: because, as I've written here before, fearmongering only works if you can hold out the promise of protection. The backfire was, not only did the means prove unpopular across the country, but they failed to accomplish the desired result. The protests got bigger, by some reports as much tenfold. They got louder. More damage to the courthouse. Press coverage around the globe, including photos of Mayor Wheeler gasping in pain after being tear-gassed.

(BTW, Ted: I give you props for guts, but you've been in bed with PPB since at least the summer of 2017. And they were in bed with Patriot Prayer at the time. You really think we can trust you?)

Meanwhile, some of the pop-up protest groups, like Wall of Moms and Riot Ribs, have had conflicts and/or collapses of leadership. It's a bummer. But it's an inevitable aspect of leaderless resistance: people come to it with different agendas, not everyone is satisfied, some move on.

It's OK. We stood off the feds. We were not moved.

But now is not the time to quit. The feds leaving only gets us back to where we were in the middle of July. And it ain't enough.

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside

Friday, July 24, 2020

Thank you, Commissioner Eudaly

The Portland Bureau of Transportation is demanding that the federal forces currently occupying the downtown courthouse remove the fence they put up. Because, it's blocking a bike lane and creating a hazard.

This seems remarkably Portland to me.

We shall not be moved (except on our own feet, bikes, skateboards, unicycles...)

Books Available
Country Well-Known as an Old Nightmare's Stable
High-Voltage Lines
Knocking from Inside