About Miriam Sagan

I'm blogging about poetry, land art, haiku, women artists, road trips, and Baba Yaga at Miriam's Well (https://miriamswell.wordpress.com). The well is ALWAYS looking to publish poetry on our themes, sudden fiction, and guest bloggers and musers.

Abstraction

I’m taking an abstract drawing class. Yes, I assumed I could never draw, but I like this. Abstract Expressionism is the middle of my taste–not to mention the art of the city I was born in. It’s quite difficult–my brain fries and I have to leave early. But it is adding to my appreciation.
I do doodle in words, too, during class.

some marks

signature
of spring wind

once, I could hardly
sign my name

only read
the notation
of sandpipers’ tracks
in sand

my job
was to run
to keep running
to pretend
I didn’t remember

my mother said
if I knew
who I was
you’d be the last person
I’d tell

what was left
in the wake
not just contrail but us

am I smiling
leaning forward
sipping something bitter
at the round table
of the small cafe
because…

was I redeemed?
and by what
if not
myself

you’ve heard
about this country
but I can tell
from your face
you have not visited.

And in the neighborhood–OPENING THIS FRIDAY
Opening Reception 5-7pm
Dan Christensen

BODY OF WORK: Leading the Writing Life —Renée Gregorio

Stupendous poet Renée Gregorio is working on a book about writing, and looking for feedback. Miram’s Well is excited to publish a chapter.
And here are two of Gregorio’s questions. Please help her with some feedback!

What inspires you about reading this chapter? What drags you down?
Do you like the book’s current title? Any other ideas for a title?

***

Ways of Naming

As a poet I have often struggled with the dichotomy between the need to be specific and detailed in naming what one is describing versus the need to simply feel experience. As I write a poem, what I am attempting to do is to translate experience into language—and what better way than to fully enter the feeling-self and write from that more intuitive space? But beside this, there is also the demand to be specific enough to be understood, to lift language into the particular experience so that the experience becomes universal.

Both ways of naming are essential. Let’s look at this. What are we trying to accomplish through our writing? To communicate, yes. To create, yes. To re-live and therefore understand more completely, yes. To translate experience into language, yes. To move another, sure. To dive deeply enough into our own experience that our experience can enter another through language? Why not? To feel the pure joy of creating, playing, being with words? Yes again.

But how do we accomplish all this? How do we hold both places that seem so divergent? On the one hand, to feel and to translate emotion into language, and on the other hand to embrace specificity so that what we feel can ripple out into the known world?

We do this by making images. Decades ago now I remember one of my poetry teachers taking the first poem I brought to her and circling all the abstractions the poem was full of and saying to me: find an image for each one of these abstractions. It was painstaking. I took the poem away in my satchel and returned to my bedsit in north London, to my table that served as writing-desk, and looked at each place she marked and found a concrete image for what was at first a vague abstraction. I say painstaking because it felt pretty mechanical. I knew what I meant by each of those abstractions. I felt the emotional upheaval of what I was saying. But what could not happen was that anyone else could feel what I was feeling.

It’s sometimes hard to convince new writers that finding a way to be specific matters. That finding a way to go beyond the first impulse in one’s writing matters. It matters because we have to ask ourselves what it is we want to say. Then we have to ask how we can best create a concrete way to say it, so that a reader could actually enter into the same emotional territory with us. We often enter into mysterious territory when we write. And, as much as possible, we have to be willing to be clear as we embrace the mystery. It is tricky territory. What I’m asking you to do is to live in two places at once: the mysterious and the mundane. I’m trying not to make one better than the other. Mystery implies enigma, something beyond our ken. Mundane connotes something much more ordinary—of the world, even of the earth.

This utterly reminds me of a move in aikido! It’s called tenchi nage, or the heaven-and-earth throw. It’s a lovely movement that I will attempt to describe in language here and now. Imagine yourself facing a partner on a mat in a dojo. Your bodies are facing each other, but in the hanmi stance. With this stance, one foot is in front of the other, knees slightly bent, creating a stance that is more protected than if your feet were beside each other and your body totally open to your partner.

Say your partner takes hold (grabs) both your wrists. In tenchi nage, what the person being grabbed would do is to split the energy of the grabber. While moving in, you would move your forward hand downward toward the earth and your other hand upward toward the heavens. This would necessarily split your partner’s energy upward and downward and as you moved further in toward her by stepping behind her, she would experience an unbalancing and eventually have to fall backwards onto the mat. I realize that this is hard to describe in words as I am sitting here in my study attempting to do just that. And I realize that teaching you the move on the mats would be much more advantageous, would allow you to both feel and see the details of this technique.

If I were to teach you the moves, what I would say is that if you are the grabber, you would experience the splitting of your energy up and down and definitely as this split entered you, you would not be able to maintain your upright stance. As the thrower or receiver of the grab, you would be directing this splitting of energy, this movement toward the heavens and toward the earth and you, too, would feel the moment of unbalancing when your partner could no longer remain standing. Your unbalancing act and your entering would create the opportunity for another experience to take shape.

But what does this have to do with writing?! Back to the mysterious and the mundane. What you would learn to do through your body if you enacted tenchi nage is to feel both places, to feel the upward pull of the mysterious heavens and to feel the downward thrust of the earthly. It is in fully feeling both places that movement is created, that the static quality of “being grabbed” can be shifted. If writing a poem or writing anything at all is about following energy and creating new perspectives and discovering what it is we really want to say, then it would do us well to consider tenchi nage, whether we ever find ourselves on a mat facing a partner (literally) or not! Writing is being on that mat. It’s putting ourselves in the habit of being “grabbed”—by a memory, an emotion, a force of spirit or a desire to understand the world and our place in it—and taking that which we don’t yet know and bringing it down to earth. Creating enough context and giving enough detail and entering into the magical space of discovery through language so that we can bring others along with us.

That old poetry teacher gave me a gift all those years ago, which was to name the weakness that existed in my poem, to show me that my abstractions, even though they were deeply felt by me, were not translating into powerful language that a reader could also feel. When I worked with each abstraction to ask myself for concrete images for each, I was digging into territory in myself that I had not yet allowed. Such digging required me to ask myself harder questions and to at least attempt to define emotional territory with details that could enlarge that territory.

What I have often feared would happen if I attempted to name clearly what I see and feel is that I would somehow diminish what I see and feel. I think this has to do with the way the world is set up; oftentimes we name something to make it our own. I’m thinking here, say, of the names of mountains. Everest is a good example. The Nepalese call that mountain Chomolungma. Westerners call it Everest. Much of the discoveries of the earth’s geography have male names associated with those discoveries. As if these mysterious places somehow belong to the person who thinks he first saw them, came upon them. I have reacted to this in my own quest for what I am calling “naming”. A sense that if I did not give something a name then I would not diminish it. I think this is the source of that fear.

And I think it is somewhat misguided. There is another way of naming. Which comes from honoring that which we are giving a name to. When we write, we have to dig in and create experience through naming. We don’t want to be vague. In fact we don’t honor our own experience—or anyone else’s for that matter—in not being clear and in not daring to step into the intricacies of naming. I think of the usual advice here, which is not to say “car” but to say “Cadillac” or “’55 Chevy” or my current favorite, “chartreuse mini cooper convertible.” How can we say what we want to say, really, without such detail? And how could we possible translate our experience, the felt-sense we have of that experience, into language without such details?

The world is a place made rich by the particular. Dive into the particular sea of your choice—be it Mar Caribe or the Pacific Coast of America or the Black Sea. Yes, dive in and take me with you. Be that daring and inclusive. Enter the mystery of language, the territory where you don’t have a clue what it is you want to say but you know there’s something there. Enter that sea and bring up each unknown gem on the sea floor. Make sure you have the right equipment, which in this case is pretty damn easy—a pen and a piece of paper. Make sure you feel your own ground first, the way your feet touch the earth, the “grab” of a particular subject or experience, memory or truth, and step forward with that “grab” holding both your wrists, you directing the energy down, down, into the earth and up, up toward heaven at the same time. The “falling”, the “throw”, the unique way that you create the space to move forward and put words on the page will be all the heaven and earth you need, will be your own particular way of naming and will contain both forces, and others will naturally come with you.

Here’s a poem I wrote that speaks to the ways of naming.

The Ways of Naming
I wish I could write about the red-hued chutney
served with idli in the South Indian restaurant in Calcutta,
but I cannot find its proper name
or any way to put words to that taste
made of red earth and rain,
shantytowns and the shape of Kali at every turn.
That particular mix always came to us at a shared table
with no common language but gesture,
always a way those who can’t speak to each other
can still say something important.
One morning our neighboring diner
showed us the proper way to drink
the sweet, hot, coffee in its tiny tin cup—
he modeled how to transfer that heat
from cup to saucer and back again,
till it was something tame enough to mouth.
I don’t suppose I need to know the name of that chutney
to still taste that creamy smokiness on my tongue.

Yesterday in El Rito I identified my first bird—
a red-naped sapsucker. Fifty-two years on this earth
and I’d never let myself be still and attentive enough to do that.
I was standing in the front yard, looking up at the elm branches,
when I noticed something that blended into the branch perfectly,
yet I saw it move. The bird’s back looked like the elm bark,
and had it stayed still, I would not have seen its life.
Once seen, I could marvel at its red cap and neck
and the way it shimmied up the branch as if in a game of hopscotch.
Then there were binoculars and more looking;
a guidebook made its way into my hands, then lots of questions,
followed by more close scrutiny—looking up at the tree,
then down to the book. An excited rhythm of finding out.
In the end, I could say with confidence: red-naped sapsucker.
I’d never done this, never loved the particular so much,
or my own participation in making something finite.

How Has My Writing Changed in the Past Five Years? by Alma Gottlieb

How Has My Writing Changed in the Past Five Years?

Alma Gottlieb

Three years ago, I began experimenting with a new genre: writing for Facebook!

I already had a private Facebook page, so I had experience with dashing out quick posts to ask for advice, share recipes, brag about my kids, promote political activism, complain annoyingly about this or that minor inconvenience, or flash vacation destinations shamelessly.

My new writing project took my Facebook involvement in a totally new direction.

At the urging of a publicist assigned to market a new book I’d coauthored for a scholarly press (A World of Babies: Imagined Childrearing Guides for Eight Societies), I set up a Facebook page for the book. Or, rather, I hired a fabulously competent college student, Erica Sheeran, to set it up. (I knew it would take me days to figure out how to do this; it took Erica less than five minutes.) I figured that once it went live, the new Facebook page would just sit there and magically collect Likes and sell books.

Wrong.

The publicist turned out to have a way more active agenda. I’m guessing he’d tried out his idea on other authors who’d, wisely, turned down the invitation. Being an adventurous (read, foolish) sort, I accepted his challenge before remembering to be an anthropologist and ask enough questions.

His strategy? Have the FB page go live two months before the book’s pub date, with a different post every day for those two months. He said that would fire up pre-pub enthusiasm and set the groundwork for a book-buying audience. Then, I should keep up the momentum with a different post for a few months post-pub, and perhaps slow down to a stately pace of a post every other day for a few months, and maybe one post every week, or two after that.

Erica and I had our work cut out for us.

Fortunately, I’d just “retired” from my college-teaching career [or, rather, ”rewired”], and it was summer. (True, my husband and I were moving across the country to live out this new stage of our lives on the East Coast after 34 years in the Midwest. But we’ll ignore that inconvenient impediment here.)

Erica and I hashed out 63 blog posts—seven posts about components of each of the book’s nine chapters. But my publicist warned me not to make the FB page too “sales-y” – by which he meant, we should write additional posts about related questions raised by the book, but not about the book. So Erica and I hashed out another, oh, hundred or so posts about the book’s issues. The book concerned how people around the world raise their young children, from immigrant Muslim communities in Lisbon, to Israel and the West Bank, to urban, modernizing China. So we started collecting news articles about child-related events, features, and crises around the world, and we wrote our own brief commentaries about each article.

Come Labor Day—two months before pub date—we began uploading posts, one a day. We alternated between posts chronicling child-rearing communities featured in the book, and posts about children’s lives and challenges elsewhere. Following my publicist’s directions, once the book was published, we began focusing more on child-related issues around the world, and less about the book itself.

We never lacked for material. Soon after the book was published, Donald Trump became president. His anti-family agenda provided interminable abominations to protest. First, there was the impact on children of his anti-Muslim migrant ban. Then, as soon as news leaked of his inhumane policy separating parents and young children at the US-Mexico border, we stopped the FB presses and posted nothing but daily updates about the crisis Trump had created, vowing to keep the Facebook page laser-focused on this Trump-crafted tragedy until the policy was reversed. We discovered how to use our FB page to promote fund-raising campaigns for organizations pledged to helping immigrant families that had been forcibly separated at the border.

And let’s not even mention our disgraceful Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

We’ve now published some 475 posts about children’s lives and challenges around the world. Beyond politics, we’ve featured art exhibits highlighting images of children and mothers; ideas for celebrating holidays with child-friendly activities; different approaches to pregnancy, childbirth, and breast/bottle-feeding around the globe; keeping students safe in violence-prone schools; and much more.

As with everything in life, there have been gains and losses. In this case, I’ve sacrificed depth for breadth.

On the “minus” side, our posts are, necessarily, far shorter than the one- or two-hour lectures I used to give in my classrooms in Illinois. I dare not offer complicated caveats, try to keep readers motivated with extended narratives, or maintain their attention with provocative questions inviting multiple responses.

On the plus side, keeping posts short enough to accommodate a social-media-habituated reader means finding the tiniest key nugget possible in a long, multi-layered story. That’s a great discipline for any writer.

Plus, it turns out, I missed teaching. I’ve ended up using our Facebook page as a digital blackboard. This social media platform offers me an infinitely expandable classroom to accommodate far more students than I have taught collectively in my ~40 years of teaching. As of this writing, the FB page has now been seen by some 750,000 people from some 47 countries around the world. (Too bad that hasn’t translated into 750,000 book sales! The ratio of FB page views to sales remains, alas, rather infinitesimal.)WOB FB Page, 6-21-19

Meanwhile, my weakness as a writer has always been prolixity. Who knows? Maybe working this new “short-and-sweet” genre will inspire me to trim the fat in my already-too-long book manuscript in progress on another subject. 😂