Devon Miller-Duggan Continues: Turning 60 and other Formal Considerations. 2


Turning 60 and other Formal Considerations. 2

So there I was, dunes across the street, pool in front of me, spitting blustery grey above, and bag of primary-colored kids’ alphabet toys in front of me. I had a nice “What if?” moment and started pulling the letters out, writing whatever word starting with that letter came to mind down the margin of my lined paper, then using those words as the first words 26 lines of a draft of a poem.

“Abecedarian” is the name for poems that follow the alphabet down through 26 lines. I’ve always thought they were a little silly—grade-school-ish. I told myself this one (which, oddly enough, turned out to be about the weather…) was okay because it was out of order. And I had a good time trying to string odd words together, letting lines break awkwardly just because they needed to get to the next word, letting odd turns come along because of those words.

So I did it again a couple of days later. And again a couple of days after that. By then, I had to go back and change some lines because I’d added another couple of rules to what I’d started calling the “Disorderly Abecedarians:” none of the words could repeat as first-words in the sequence, it was a sequence, there was going to be a general, if vague, theological breeze blowing through the whole shebang, and I would write 26 (I had to pick some number…). I also decided—and this was what made the early revisions necessary—that one letter would use the same word all the way through the sequence: L. And I decided, whimsically, that the word attached to that would be “love,” because I pretty much forbid my Intro to Poetry Writing students to use it.

Predictably, coming up with 26 Z-words, and 26 Q-words turned out to be beastly. I owe a great debt of gratitude to, which is a site dedicated to weird and lost English words. And, yes, I will be using footnotes because some of them don’t show up on The surprises were how hard K and Y also turned out to be.

And I was suddenly writing like I hadn’t ever, turning out drafts that had all kinds of weird energy and surprises (at least for me). I was having fun. I had a project that was eating my brain. At some point in July (our trip had been in early June), I decided that I’d try to finish all 26 before the semester started in late August.

Which I did. I had fun. I have loved writing poetry, for decades. It has been necessary to my well-being that I write, for decades. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had a blast writing poetry. And I have had many, many years when 26 poems would have seemed miraculous.

So the semester started. Because of my anarchic/rule-driven pile of poems in a form I had half-invented and only ever half-respected, I started off the school year feeling unusually pleased with my summer (several terrific trips and the fact that the black-eyes from a fall had disappeared just in time for the first day of class didn’t hurt either. But I wasn’t writing. Initially, I blamed it (probably with some justice) on the cluster-flurry that is the beginning of the semester. But by late September, it was clear that it was more than that. The abecedarians weren’t done with me.


New Poetry Posts Are Up at SFCC!

Check out posts from fall’s poetry class taught by Daniel Kilpatric:

Anger/Rage by Lorraine E. Leslie is in the “west of the bookstore/east of the prairie dogs” area–close in post

Centerfold by Geoffrey Scialla is in the “west of the bookstore/east of the prairie dogs” area–outer post

sweater, my dear by kirstiann bushman–the upper west entrance

Granny Smith by Mark A. Rodriguez–lower west entrance

The Restless Wanderer by Courtney Handy–center courtyard, center post

“On a journey” by Ralph Flores Jr.–center courtyard, side post

The Grocery Store by Thomas Wood–framed post by Fine arts Entrance

Look for them all!



Devon Miller-Duggan on Abecedarians: Part 1: Turning 60 and Other Formal Considerations

Devon Miller-Duggan on Abecedarians: Part 1: Turning 60 and Other Formal Considerations

It started with a couple of bags of alphabet sand molds. Miriam had sent them to my house in Delaware in advance of our 60th birthdays celebratory trip to Cape May. We were going to use them to practice for a land art project she had coming up—writing poems on the tideline that would inevitably be washed away.

We had a rainy-blowy day. Happily, we also had a poolside room with a table underneath the balcony, so a person could sit outside as long as the wind didn’t shift. We’d been doing the Twyla Tharp Questionnaire, and talking a lot about what turning 60 might mean. I’ve been more or less vaguely ticked off at my life in poetry for years, for a variety of reasons having mostly to do with my conviction that I was a failure, career-wise, publication-wise, writing-wise. My poor family has had to spend way too much time listening to me whinge about all of this and my daughters are not entirely patient with it. They like to point out all the good stuff about my life, especially anything that can fall into the category of “privilege” or “achievement.” They love to point out to me how many of my students still speak to me.

I could go on at some length about the complicated issues of giftedness, art, persistence, dreams, life-interfering with all of the above, life offering generous compensations for that interference. I could probably even get religion in there. Bottom line: I believed, in my 20s (and on the basis of some reasonable evidence) that I had “the stuff,” and that having “the stuff” would mean, if I did the right things (I very definitively screwed some of those “right” things up courtesy of youth, cluelessness, thick-headedness, and a couple of other factors—none of them attractive) and worked hard enough, “the stuff” and I would be bound for at least moderately spiffy fruition. Any of you reading this who are in the arts, any of you who were ever told to “follow your dreams” in any form will know what I mean.

Turning 60 seemed like a Big Deal, like it required some clear thinking and clear planning, and maybe a bit of emotional house-cleaning. Oddly, I did a lot of thinking and house-cleaning at the 2014 AWP convention a couple of months before The Birthday, and then kept thinking. I decided that A) I needed to work harder—not so anything in particular would happen, but so that I could quit suspecting my career never took off because I never worked hard enough, B) I needed to be grateful that I was still writing, and C) I needed to break some habits, or play harder, or do something out of my own box.

That’s where the letters, the blowy day (with Miriam napping), and Twyla Tharp came together.


More Habits: Work Credit, Bonus Fruit, and Household Member of the Week

I’ve been planning to write more about habits. And since late January is the traditional “good-bye new year’s resolutions” period it seems like motivation is a good place to start.
Weirdly, though, I am easily motivated by meaningless ephemeral systems. Like “points.” Not everyone is like this. A friend recently remarked, in an irritated fashion, about a work place program, “I’m just not motivated by stickers.” Well, I’m motivated by the equivalent of invisible stickers.
To backtrack—people sometimes accuse me and my husband Rich of living in a world of own. This might be true. For example, we pretend our car is an airplane (it is more elaborate than that, but I don’t want to embarrass myself). We have “household member of the week award” which doesn’t actually exist and is given (or claimed) only occasionally. We have the extremely bizarre “bonus fruit” system where you get “extra credit” for eating the most ripe and plentiful produce. And we have “work credit.”
Work credit derives from the fact that Rich lived for many years on the egalitarian commune Twin Oaks. There really was work credit there—and it could be used for something. I’ve spent many idle minutes imagining how I’d have done at Twin Oaks (I’m co-operative but also a rebel and like to beat a system.) So I’d muse—I wonder if I could get work credit at Twin Oaks for such and such an activity. Fascinatingly, at the real Twin Oaks, a mother got work credit for nursing—what a great idea! The upshot was—I wanted household “work credit” for gardening. Rich said it was worth only “half” work credit. And I got really mad. But why? Work credit was just made up. Because I can be motivated by points.
For example, my exercise most days consists of 10,000 steps a day. I once read that Mao Tse-tung did this, not that a dictator’s exercise program should be a role model. My two dollar pedometer just shows the number of steps. Everything counts—walking, housework, dancing, tread mill . The truth is, I’m not really motivated by “Health”—too big and vague. I like to walk. I like to count.
The hits on this blog motivate me, although that is a bit trickier. Because as my original millennial blog mentor told me, “you can’t write to the hits.” But the fact that I can SEE the hits is part of what keeps me going.
So, what about procrastination. There are some big items that never come off my to do list. Cleaning up a storage shed. Some standard medical tests and shots. I’m afraid of both that storage unit and medically anxious in general. I need work credit. A lot of it.

No Purl: Memorial Piece with my Dead Father’s Tie

Recently artist Suzanne Vilmain showed me a textile piece she’d made: “No purl,” she said, “just knit.” And she was knitting everything–metal, fabric strips, torn clothes. I was very inspired by her approach. I started in, knitting some yarn remnants, buttons, glass beads. Then it hit–my dead father’s tie! Knit that too.

It came out surprisingly well, in that it pleased me. This is the first time, after many years of trying, that I’ve been able to anything emotionally expressive in textile.


When I was a teen-ager, I’d go in to my father’s closet and use his ties as hippie headbands and belts.




Sometimes he’d let me have a few.

Thank you, Suzanne.

Monday Poem: that season wasn’t fun by Sophie Sagan-Gutherz

I managed to get a bunch of poems from the talented Sophie Sagan-Gutherz, studying at Tisch at NYU. Miriam’s Well will be blogging one on several forthcoming Mondays. Enjoy!


that season wasn’t fun

Why can’t i wear shorts in the summertime?
Did he run or walk away?
Do the geese leave each other alone?
Why do i walk like a duck?
Why is the watermelon in my salad always weeping?
Who is drunk, a stagnant mistress?
And how come she’s a she?
Why does no mean convince me?
What if i don’t want to take a bath?
Why do strange men always swallow my sandals whole?
How come dad can spoil all the cold milk?
Where was the expiration date?
Where was the expiration date?
Where was the expiration date?

Do you even know where your ideas come from? Essay on creativity by Bibi Deitz

My writer friend Denton Loving recently mentioned that he is composing a craft essay about the source of ideas. He sent out a call for ideas about ideas: Do you even know where your ideas come from? It got me thinking on the C train; I started scratching down some thoughts for him, but I wound up writing my own essay about ideas. (So, of course, emails from smart friends should necessarily be on the list of places from which ideas surface.)

Biking. Listening to classical music performed live, watching the cellists and flautists and violinists close their eyes and twitch and sweat. Listening to hip-hop: in the car, biking, walking paths urban and rural. The beach: watching the water. Flying, every single flight. Sex—sometimes I’ll have such a good idea I’ll almost want to pause for a moment to jot it down (almost). Long talks, especially with other writers. Fireplaces: watching the burn. Long drives (dictation). Museums and galleries and dance performances. Epic walks. New cities; architecture. Anything new. Reading, of course. Yoga. Meditation. Baths short and long, with or without bubbles or Epsom salt or essential oil. 

But these are all experiences. Truth is, ideas just arrive. I feel as though the French must have a word for this—that moment we’ve all had, that mysterious alchemy of timing and memory, circumstance and scent and the right kind of light, the moon out or rain or another day of medium sun and the phone rings or doesn’t ring and perhaps we’ve showered already or maybe we’re just getting started with a pot of tea; no matter the context, these moments of grace, these muse-moments just come. They come precious and infrequent, but the important thing is that they do roll in from time to time. 

These moments appear with more regularity, I find, if I am putting seemingly unrelated work in to further their probability of existence. This includes more obvious self-care–type things such as yoga and meditation, but it also includes unlikely or inexact practices including but not limited to: late nights with old friends; no writing for two weeks because—life; long Sundays with lovers; binge-listening to records; answering the phone when it would be easier to hit “ignore”; eating soft-poached eggs in morning light with a little salt; reading a book instead of writing; going to the movies instead of writing; going to a friend’s birthday party instead of writing. Which is to say: leisure. Going slowly. The counterintuitive idea of slow and steady winning the race. 

This is not, of course, to say we shouldn’t write regularly or to provide excuse to goof around or play hooky or blow it off altogether (though I maintain that this is important sometimes, at least for me—my muse doesn’t like stringency!), but it is to say that writing is not so rarified or, god forbid, formulaic. A writer and teacher whom I admire and respect beyond belief once told me that she wrote just one hour each day for a period of time. She found that she couldn’t get herself to adhere to the rigor of writing every day; but when she broke it down to one hour, she not only stuck to it but also accomplished more in that one hour than she had previously in longer stretches, simply by virtue of the fact that she knew she only had that one hour, and had to make hay, etc. At the end of her hour, she would stop. Another trick I learned from yet another fabulous writer and teacher is to set a writing window and only write for that quantum of time: no more, no less. This seemed insane to me. “But what if you’re on a roll at the end of your window?” I asked. “All the better,” he told me. “Then you’ll be excited to write again the next day.” At first when I tried this suggestion it felt so counterintuitive that I almost couldn’t adhere to it, but he was right. 

I digress. This is an essay about ideas, and the source thereof, and not about what to do with such ideas once they arise—sometimes first like a mirage, blurry and almost hallucinogenic, slowly developing over time; and sometimes so clear and in focus from the start that it is actually startling, a somatic experience of heart-skip or breath-gasp, the pulling over to the side of the road to capture the idea, fragile and prenatal, before it flits back from whence it came without further comment, never to return again. 

This brings me to another aside: Where do ideas go when they ring in and we don’t write them down? This happens routinely, the fantastic idea for a character or a scene or a whole story in the shower or on a bicycle or ferris wheel or date or in a swimming pool or on a long walk or literally up a tree with no paper in sight. While I’ve dreamed up elaborate and hilarious mnemonic devices to remember such ideas, they often slip through the lattice of my brain despite my best efforts and have fully departed by the time a notebook or napkin or the back of a receipt is at hand. While this is an incredibly frustrating phenomenon, I’ve come to a conclusion: The best ideas, the ones I’m really supposed to roll with, double back or stay. If it’s important, it will come back. As to the rest, the ephemeral, the ones that get away—negligible. Or at least that’s what I like to believe. 

And so, dear readers: How do you think of ideas? Where do you think they come from? I should conclude by saying that collaboration has always been a vital source of idea-making for me, and that there is a special type of magic that happens when we bounce ideas off each other, some kind of power of multiplication that spreads and squares and cubes ideas. Ideas need and breed on other ideas; and for ideas, for certain, we need each other. 

Bibi Deitz lives and writes in Brooklyn. Recent work has appeared in Bookforum, The Rumpus, Berfrois, Queen’s Mob’s Teahouse and BOMB, and is forthcoming from Marie Claire. 

Cheating at the Game of Life

The Game of Life–the board game, that is, is pretty stupid. But my daughter loved it as a child. I think she liked the tiny cars with pink sticks for mom and girls, blue for dad and boys. I grew up as the eldest of four. Our rule was–winner cleans up. That way a bad loser could trash the board and throw things with impunity. I had systems for everything. When playing Candyland with a younger sib–later my daughter–I’d cheat. I’d set up the cards so the younger player would eventually win. A friend of mine was stunned to hear this. But I didn’t want to spend all day playing Candyland.
Now–the site 538 claims: “Stop Playing Monopoly With Your Kids (And Play These Games Instead). Oliver Roeder writes: “Parents want the best for their kids. This, no doubt, extends to the board game closet. But Mom and Dad may not be aware of the drudgery and fickle chance to which they’re subjecting the family. In a recent piece, I found that some of the most beloved childhood games — think Candy Land, Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly — just aren’t very good. The data emphatically says so. But where there’s data, there’s also hope.”
Actually I disagree. I think Snakes and Ladders is good preparation for life (real thing, not board game.) It is an ancient east Indian game that is based totally on luck. It teaches karma, fortune, reversals, acceptance.
And what is the “best” for kids? Maybe a dose of fatalism has its place. Maybe it is ok to have your big sister cheat so you can win. Life may be more than pink and blue sticks in a car. Or not.