The Answers are Inside the Mountains

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing LifeThe Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Memorial
In Nagasaki they built a little room
dark and soundproof where you can
go in all alone and close the door and cry.

William Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975 until 1990, crafted over 20,000 poems during his time on Earth- a staggering output. A pacifist—soft-spoken, yet fierce—Stafford was a teacher, a mentor, a wide-eyed, gracious observer and recorder of life. His poems are clean, without guile or pretense and most often set in the natural world. He eschewed the rules of writing, rising above convention to state simply that showing up to the page was enough. That writing made one a writer, not publishing, not critical acclaim, not commercial success.

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

The earth says have a place, be what that place requires; hear the sound the birds imply and see as deep as ridges go behind each other.

I immediately lent it out to a writer friend and now I am bereft, trying to write this review without the treasured work beside me to flip through and reread. But I took notes in my journal, and took great comfort in reading that Stafford too kept journals, that they were the source of his creativity, one of the places he turned to in crafting his poems, where he worked out ideas and themes, from which he pulled his own material.

Save up little pieces that escape other people. Pick up the gleamings.

At this precarious time, when I struggle to find hope and beauty, I am reminded the answers are in the mountains, the mountains of art that surround me.

We drown in ugliness. Art helps teach us to swim.

I’m closing with a poem that wasn’t in the book, because in searching for another poem, I came across this. It’s been one of my favorites for years and reading it again opened up a river inside me. A river frozen over, now melted by Stafford’s words.

Ask Me
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

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My Reading Year: The Best of 2016

The Year of the Fidgety Reader. That was my 2016. Releasing my own novel and editing a second and third cut into my precious reading time, energy and focus, and that frustrated the hell out of me- reading is as important to me as a writer as writing. But I did encounter the extraordinary, books that I look back on now with gratitude, for they have changed me as a writer and a human being.

 

The Breakdown: 76 read

Novels: 42

Poetry Collections: 6

Memoir: 6

Short Story Collections: 6

Writing Craft: 4

Creative Nonfiction: (social, political, historical): 11

Biography: 1

Authors:  68 women; 6 men; 2 multiple authors

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If there was any particular theme to my reading this year, it was survival. Diane Les Bequets’s stunning Breaking Wild and the novel that had my favorite opening paragraph of the year, William Giraldi’s Hold the Dark and the lovely, achingly sad Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz are literary thrillers that shiver with cold and exquisite tension. Eowyn Ivey took me to The Bright Edge of the World in her novel about exploring the Alaskan frontier, while Midge Raymond, David Pablo Cohn, and Lily Brooks-Dalton transported me to Antarctica and the North Pole with their enthralling tales (My Last Continent, Heller’s Tale, and Good Morning Midnight).

 

War and its aftermath played out in Elizabeth Marro’s debut Casualties, Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, Salt to the Sea by Ruth Sepetys—a gorgeous are-you-sure-this-is-YA novel set in WWII Prussia, Martha Hall Kelly’s beautiful WWII epic Lilac Girlsand one from the master of soul-haunting novels, Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs.

 

I had joined a wonderful virtual book club at the start of the year and intended to follow along with the plan to read a Virginia Woolf each month. I made it to March at any rate, reading A Haunted House and Other Short Stories and Mrs. Dalloway. This year I’ve added The Voyage Out to the roster.

 

Not enough poetry. But what there was, including W.S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Dorianne Laux, expanded my soul.

 

Here are a few books that took my breath away, books I wanted to press into everyone’s hands, saying, “Read this. You must.” Excerpted comments are from my Goodreads reviews, books presented in no particular order.

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann (Fiction/Short Stories: 2015)

Colum McCann traces the shadows of tension and love, despair and tragedy in this collection of one novella and three short stories-pieces that held me transfixed with their poignancy and fierce energy.

 

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (Writing Craft/Inspiration: 2015)

There could not have been a better time to read Big Magic than in the fraught and anxious, giddy and surreal days before launching my first novel. Gilbert’s words soothed and grounded me, took me out of the uncomfortable, jangly headspace of self-promotion and back into the embrace of what it means to be a creative person, why I set forth on this path in the first place.

 

M Train, Patti Smith (Memoir: 2016)

Reading the lovely Proustian interlude that is M Train, I felt like a shadow-angel trailing Patti Smith, from Café ‘Ino down the block from her New York apartment to the far-flung places in her past and present that twirl like ribbons in her poetry, her songs, her art. M Train is a meditation on this artist’s life, more kaleidoscope than memoir, a shifting wonder that spills pieces of colored glass memories.

 

Baby’s On Fire, Liz Prato (Fiction/Short Stories: 2015)

I reckon many reading this review are not familiar with writer Liz Prato or this slim volume of twelve stories, her debut collection. I’m doing what I can here, and in the real world, to change that. Fortunately I live in the literary Utopia that is the Pacific Northwest, where astonishingly talented writers are nearly as numerous as coffee shops and the community lifts up, supports and loves its own. Liz is a literary lion here, but you should know her, you should read her work.

 

The Wolf Border, Sarah Hall (Fiction: 2015)

Freedom/captivity; wild/ tame; fertile/barren; desire/indifference . . . it’s rarely just one or the other in life, is it? We walk on the border between each, sometimes falling one way, sometimes another, ever in search of balance. In this extraordinary novel, Sarah Hall explores the borders nature creates, borders imposed by man, borders the heart transcends no matter how tightly we exert out control.

 

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, Anne Boyd Rioux (Biography: 2016)

A well-constructed biography is a dance between feet-on-ground facts and limbs-in-air storytelling. Flesh and soul must be conveyed in the chronology of events, and a case must be created that this one life holds relevance to all readers. A biography is an act of scholarship and illumination. And so it is with Anne Boyd Rioux’s luminous biography of nearly-forgotten 19th century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson.

 

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, Rebecca Solnit (Essays/Social Science: 2014)

This collection of 29 essays, previously published in a variety of literary venues, demonstrates Rebecca Solnit’s virtuosity as an compassionate intellectual, a keen and critical observer of the human condition, and a preeminent force in American letters.

 

The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa (Essays/Philosophy: 1982)

The four months it took me to read Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously-published collection of thought fragments have been some of the most fraught and chrysalis-splitting days of my adult life. This book will forever be synonymous with transition and grief, exploration and longing. I could read only bits at a time, for Pessoa’s struggle to understand the world and his place in it mirrored my own and my many gasps of recognition left me breathless.

 

Rising Strong, Brené Brown (Non-fiction/Motivational: 2015)

There are books that meet you at just the right time, when you most need and are open to their messages. I can well imagine encountering the warm Texan embrace of Brené Brown’s brand of social psychology at other times of my life and being turned off by its fierceness, volume and confidence. I may have looked askance at the cult of Brené Brown, with legions of devotees who discovered her through her TED talk gone viral, read her previous works, taken her Oprah-endorsed self-actualization workshops, or listened to her CD series on vulnerability and shame. Rising Strong is in fact my first encounter with Brené Brown’s work.

 

Good Morning, Midnight, Lily Brooks-Dalton (Fiction: 2016)

A lyrical and poignant elegy for Earth, imbued with irrepressible hope, Good Morning, Midnight is one of the loveliest books I’ve read in such a very long time. Lily Brooks-Dalton’s keen and delightful imagination, paired with a natural compassion and her gorgeous, lucid prose, made this a book I thought of in the hours when I had to leave it behind.

As Stars Begin to Burn

Three months to the day since my last blog post. Sounds rather like a statement fit for the confessional booth, doesn’t it?

 

“Forgive me Father, for I have . . . ‘  

 

I’ve been asking for forgiveness often of late. Of myself, for myself. Life, having flipped upside-down in recent months, leaves my inside-out heart pushing through a thick fog of self-doubt and anxiety with occasional glimpses of bright blue joy above. Love and belly laughs. Bonfires and beaches. Une chienne blanche. La ville rose. 

 

EndingsBeginningsLossesFinds freefalling like a poem snipped apart and flung into the air, its wordpieces floating to the ground to form new lines, new meanings.

 

When I began writing full-time three summers ago, I worried that stepping off the traditional work-life stage would distance me from life’s theatre, that I would fall into a too quiet existence, all the potential characters and their stories passing me by. I would no longer really live life, only observe it from a comfortable remove.

 

Turns out, I had nothing to fear. Life chased me down. Smacked me upside the head. Said don’t even think about getting comfortable, girlfriend. 

 

And so I am in the thick of it. My own story as large as life, almost larger than I can handle some days. But, fuck. It’s mine. In all its hot mess merry-go-round spinning whiplash glory of possibility and bewilderment of massive change. I am so alive I can scarcely breathe from the force of it.

 

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Manzanita, Oregon Coast, June 2016

And ever the writer, a part of me stands slightly outside, taking note of the emotions that hit my solar plexus like a hammer blow, the characters who crash through my heart’s door in all their noisy love and fury, unlooked for, uninvited, but inevitable. Intended. I create word photographs of the tsunami, knowing my way through this to the other side, to peace and equanimity, will be found on the page.

 

Thank you, precious friend, who read this Mary Oliver poem to me over the phone last night, over the sound of my sobs. Thank you, Poetry, for always speaking my heart.

 

Many thanks to those of you who have reached out to me these past weeks, wondering where I was, whether I was all right, when I’d be back. I’m here. Writing my stories. I’m here. Living this one wild and precious life.

 

I’m here. 

 

The Journey 
 
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

by Mary Oliver 

Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections

Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to BelongEternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong by John O’Donohue
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

Some books simply find you. They enter your life at the right time, when you are most in need of and receptive to hearing their message. This book. My soul. The Universe recognized what I needed and offered up these words in response.

 

I’ve been aware of John O’Donohue’s work for some time: I have a collection of his poetry, gifted by a dear friend, that I dip into and feel embraced by; I’ve been to a writing residency at Anam Cara in southwest Ireland, named for one of his works of essays and reflections. But it wasn’t until I read a quote in the amazing weekly newsletter of curated wisdom, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings (you must subscribe, you simply must) that I learned of Eternal Echoes and knew it was the book for me, at this time, in this place.

 

There is a divine restlessness in the human heart. Though our bodies maintain an outer stability and consistency, the heart is an eternal nomad. No circle of belonging can ever contain all the longings of the human heart. As Shakespeare said, we have “immortal longings.” All human creativity issues from the urgency of longing.

That quote has become the centerpiece of the talk I give at author readings, for it speaks not only to the central themes of my novel, but to the themes playing out in my life.

 

Eternal Echoes is about coming to terms with the emptiness inherent to one’s soul, an emptiness we seek to fill with religion or drugs, love or work, instead of accepting that it is the very space inside we need, in order to grow into our compassion, our true selves.

 

There is something within you that no one or nothing else in the world is able to meet or satisfy. When you recognize that such unease is natural, it will free you from getting on the treadmill of chasing ever more temporary and partial satisfactions. This eternal longing will always insist on some door remaining open somewhere in all the shelters where you belong. When you befriend this longing, it will keep you awake and alert to why you are here on earth.

 

For this reader, acknowledging and living with this longing has been a particularly painful and recent exploration. I am a problem-solver by nature and when something is off, when my soul is akilter, my instinct is to root out the source of the maladjustment and fix it. It’s hard to accept that I need to sit with my discomfort and listen to what it is trying tell me.

 

Most of the activity in society is subconsciously designed to quell the voice crying in the wilderness within you. The mystic Thomas à Kempis said that when you go out into the world, you return having lost some of yourself. Until you learn to inhabit your aloneness, the lonely distraction and noise of society will seduce you into false belonging, with which you will only become empty and weary.

 

By necessity, I have been spending a lot of time “in society” lately, losing bits of myself along the way. And the more time I spend engaged in society, the more Fernando Pessoa’s lament from The Book of Disquiet (yet another collection of wisdoms that has found its way to me at the right time): my “passions and emotions (are) lost among more visible kinds of achievement.”

 

Eternal Echoes is informed by Celtic mysticism and a fluid Christian theology. Although I am not a Christian and actively avoid anything that smacks of faith-based advice, O’Donohue’s approach is philosophical rather than theological. It is something akin to gnosticism, that compels the individual to be an active participant in her own journey to wholeness, not a blind believer in an all-powerful god. He writes of allowing in vulnerability, for vulnerability leads to wonder, and wonder leads to seeking, and seeking leads to growth, and growth makes room for everyone else.

 

Dog-eared and underlined and highlighted and journaled, Eternal Echoes enters my library of go-to soulcatchers, along with the writings of Richard Hugo, Rilke and Pessoa, Woolf, Didion and Solnit: writers who understand what it means to allow in the darkness and sit tight while it slowly becomes light.

 

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My Reading Year: Best of 2015

 

This was the year of the woman writer for me. From a mound of apricots rotting on Rebecca Solnit’s floor, to the ebb and flow of Virginia Woolf’s melancholic The Waves; from Joan Didion’s 1960s Los Angeles to Kate Atkinson‘s WWII England, from Lidia Yuknavitchs ravaged bodies to Jill Alexander Essbaum‘s ravishing trysts, women took me to war zones, both personal and geographical. They wrote poetry that brought me to tears and political histories that roused me to action.

 

It was an exceptional reading year.

 

The Breakdown: 135 read

Novels: 76

Poetry Collections: 18

Essay Collections: 10

Memoir: 9

Short Story Collections: 8

Writing Craft: 8

Creative Nonfiction: (social, political, historical): 5

Biography: 1

Authors:  94 women; 37 men; 4 multiple authors

 

I made so many literary discoveries, starting with Italian writer Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; The Story of the Lost Childthat have taken the English-language world by storm. The slow burn that began a few years ago, when Europa Editions published the first of Ann Goldstein’s translations, became a bonfire of enthusiasm in 2015. And I happily joined in. I read all four of the Neapolitan Novels this year—the fourth and final of which was published this past September—as well as the incendiary The Days of Abandonment.

 

Irish novelist Anne Enright was another. Just as she was named the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction in 2015, I was finally taking notice! Man Booker winner and chronicler of modern Ireland, she writes some of the most searing, en pointe prose I’ve read . . . ever. As I noted in my review of The Forgotten Waltz, “this is not the cozy Ireland of peat fires and Catholic guilt and rain on rose petals.This is boom-time Ireland, with all its flash and well-cut suits and Chardonnay and vacation homes and holidays in Spain. This is Ireland built by IT and pharmaceuticals and foreign investment. This is Ireland rising. This is Ireland falling.” This year I read The Gathering (2007); The Forgotten Waltz (2011); and 2015’s The Green Road.

 

As a writer, it should go without saying that words matter to me, that they become my way in to understanding the world. 2015 was the year that I confronted my assumptions and ignorance about systemic racism in the United States, when I sat with my discomfort, my white privilege, and went still, listening to others’ stories. My education began with Michelle Alexander’s staggering The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness, continued with the memoirs and social histories by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipients Bryan Stevenson—Just Mercyand writer/journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates—Between the World and Me. Stevenson is the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is doing extraordinary work to reform sentencing laws, end the death penalty, free the wrongly-imprisoned, and fight against the mass incarceration of America’s black men. I listened to the voices of black women breaking through pop culture tropes in Tamara Winfrey Harris’ The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America and suspended my disbelief to absorb white journalist John Howard Griffin’s 1959 social experiment, Black Like Me.

 

I heard black voices sing with profound resonance and piercing clarity in the poetry of Jacqueline Woodson—Brown Girl Dreaming, Yusef Komunyakaa—Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems, Kira Lynne Allen—Write This Second, Patricia Spears Jones—A Lucent Fire, and two poets with the same last name who are related only by their extraordinary literary gifts: Camille Rankine—Incorrect Merciful Impulses and Claudia Rankine’s multiple-award winning prose/poetry/essay/graphic work of art and power, Citizen: An American Lyric.

 

Speaking of Poetry. Oh. Let us speak of Poetry. Even before I knew I’d be attending my first poetry workshop, writing my first poems, I resolved to be more deliberate in reading poetry. To read more. To read widely. And I made the most beautiful discoveries. In addition to those listed above, works by Ellen Bass—The Human Line, Jack Gilbert—Collected Poems, Galway Kinnell—A New Selected Poems, Hélène Cardona—Dreaming My Animal Selves, and Charles Wright—Caribou made a particular tilt/shift to my world.

 

And here are a few books that took my breath away, books I wanted to press into everyone’s hands, saying, “Read this. You must.” Excerpted comments are from my Goodreads reviews, books presented in no particular order.

 

Euphoria, Lily King (Fiction: 2014)

Euphoria was inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her experiences along the Sepik River with her husband Reo Fortune and the British anthropologist who would become her second husband, Gregory Bateson. But the story is entirely of King’s invention, including the tribes and their cultures. The novel is a feat of research, imagination, passion, and restraint.

 

Something Rich and Strange, Ron Rash (Short stories: 2014)

Rash’s writing is marvelous and his mastery of the short story breathtaking. He wrings full stories with astonishing economy of plot—many are mere pages long—yet each is rendered in vivid detail. You have the sense that you are eavesdropping into these lives, seeing, hearing, smelling Rash’s world before the characters walk away, leaving you wondering what might become of their Shakespearean-tragic lives.

 

The Waves, Virginia Woolf (Fiction: 1931)

The Waves made me quiver. It made my heart jump under my frock like the leaves. I don’t know when I have read such a thing of beauty, a work that soars in joy and plummets elegiacally, rising and falling, ever in motion, and yet caught in stillness. A listening.

 

H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald (Memoir: 2014)

H is for Hawk stole me, holding me captive with its madness and love. Part claustrophobic memoir of grief, part luminous tribute to the sport of falconry, Helen Macdonald’s book is brilliant and tense. It is a story of fury and grace, recounted in pulsing, poetic language.

 

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro (Memoir, Writing Craft Inspiration: 2013)

Dani Shapiro, in this compact, eloquent, lovely book touches every aspect of a writer’s life: the distractions, the blocks, the longings, envies, vulnerabilities, processes and rhythms, cold realities, and the sustaining joys. It is less advice and prescription than empathy born of experience, a sincere hug but then a leaning back with hands clasped on your shoulders, turning you around and pushing you out the door. “Courage,” she writes, “is all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.”

 

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Jonathan Evison (Fiction, 2012)

Avoiding the literary cleverness and Big Ideas that are fashionable in postmodern American novels, Jonathan Evison delivers a clear-eyed but hopeful story of loss and love, parenting, and friendship. Read, and be redeemed.

 

Landfalls, Naomi Williams (Fiction: 2015)

This is simply the best of what historical fiction can be: a voyage of discovery that speaks to the imagination and the heart, swallowing the reader whole like a literary whale.

 

The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra (Short stories: 2015)

Marra returns us to the claustrophobic terror of Soviet Russia and Stalin’s purges, where a child’s careless words can send a mother to prison, an uncle to his death, where an art restorer must eliminate evidence of subversion from paintings yet manages to score some subversion of his own. We meet the children and grandchildren of those who survived (or not) Siberia’s labor camps and prisons, young people born into glasnost and a Russia where the rich measure their wealth in billions, fueled by corruption, drugs and guns.

 

Her Own Vietnam, Lynn Kanter (Fiction: 2014)

Kanter show the bonds between women that are both complex and deeply satisfying, whether those woman are partners, sisters, mothers/daughters, friends or fellow soldiers. Men are present everywhere, of course–this is a novel about war, after all–but their behavior, vulnerabilities and strengths are filtered through the perspective of women who are not dependent upon them for an identity.

 

Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf (Fiction: 2015)

My heart is so full of admiration and affection for Kent Haruf, his stories, his characters, his dry, dusty, flat eastern Colorado. I ache for what was, what will never be again. I am thankful for this final, perfect book—written for his wife and true love, Cathy—and her generosity in sharing it with her husband’s readers. Kent, you are so missed. Thank you.

 

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Of Crows & Copper Mines

Dithering around today, trying to find the right way to begin this post. Which, not unrelated, is one of my greatest writing challenges. Cutting through the backstory, pruning the exposition, digging through the compost to find the story’s true beginning.

 

The beginning may be May 2002, when I traveled to Ireland for the first time and hiked the Beara Peninsula, losing my heart to boggy mountains and wind-shrieked coastlines. It may be October 2010, when I took my first writing class—a workshop on travel writing at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle—thinking I should find a way to meld my love for exploration with the growing desire to release words onto a page. It may be June 2011 and the publication of my first short story, when I realized that if I wrote one perhaps I could another, and I owed it to myself to try. Perhaps July 2012, when the ending of life inside my body brought me to create a different kind of life on the page.

 

Or it may be July 2013, when I walked away from paycheck and health insurance, a series of panic attacks in my wake, hope gilding the clouds of uncertainty ahead, into a full-time writing life.

 

But many of these stories I have already shared with you here. That backstory, that exposition, all running counter to the technique of in media res: beginning in the middle of the action.

 

In January 2014, as I set a first novel aside to rest, both of us exhausted by the effort to cull and corral 170,000 words into a 99,000 word manuscript, I created the story of a recovering alcoholic who has a marriage to repair and a career to salvage. And an artist who cannot forgive himself for the tragedy he caused. I brought them together on a lean claw of land on Ireland’s southwest coast: the Beara peninsula, where the endangered Red-billed chough-—a member of the Corvidae family with the scientific name made for a poem: Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax—congregate on land that could yield a fortune in copper.

 

That story became the novel The Crows of Beara. That novel was named a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, judged by PEN/Faulkner author and Man Booker prize nominee Karen Joy Fowler.

 

And as of this week, my Crows has found an amazing nest: Ashland Creek Press. Ashland Creek Press, a publisher based in Oregon, is dedicated to publishing literature—fiction, memoir, creative non-fiction—focused on environmental, conservation, ecology, and wildlife themes. My crows and my words could not have found a more welcoming, nurturing home. The Crows of Beara is set to take flight September 2017.

 

There. That’s a beginning.

 

Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)
Ballycrovane Ogham Stone, Beara Peninsula: tallest Ogham stone in Europe. (Neolithic, Bronze Age)

The Way In

“What is a poem?” poet Leanne O’Sullivan asks, her soft voice straining to be heard over the rain pelting the conservatory roof. “How do prose and poetry differ?”

“There is more room for the reader in a poem,” I reply. “More room for interpretation and emotion.” I think of Colm Tóibín, one of my prose idols, who states that he writes the silences. I think poetry must be this, an honoring of the silence between the words, between our thoughts.

 

dot dot dot. question mark. Sitting with a blank notebook, uncertain in my ignorance, rattled by my fears, what the hell do I know?

 

Before arriving at this poetry workshop in southwest Ireland, I give myself permission not to write a poem. I’m not a poet and have read poetry in a haphazard way, picking up recommendations here and there, from names dropped in books or by friends, looking through slim volumes in a bookstore, from an obituary—for when does the world talk about poets, except when they die? As a writer of prose and essay, I know the value of rhythm and form, of the carefully chosen word, the breath taken, the meaning conferred in a phrase or in the spaces between. These are essential to developing my storytelling and writing art and craft. But to actually write my own poems?

 

All that I have to learn about poetry, all the poems I have yet to read, poets yet to discover . . . it makes me panicky, really. Yes. I would be the one to panic about poetry.

 

A creature of process, the kid forever tugging on a sleeve asking, “Why, mommy? WHY?” I pore over The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s lovely, lucid guide to poetry; I’ve got Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary on my equivalent of speed-dial (sitting on the end table next to the sofa); I sift through the teaching resources on poets.org

 

I am searching for a way in.

 

Yet on this workshop first day, as the storm blows off Slieve Miskish and hurtles toward Coulagh Bay, peace descends. My notes capture Leanne’s sure hand, leading me past my doubts: Poetry is permission to write; it is the places where language cannot go; it is the recognition that there is no language; it is the waiting, the revising; ‘The talent is knowing what’s called for,’ she quotes Seamus Heaney. Poetry is awareness. Awareness of what you are writing. Deliberate. Purposeful. Considered. Waited for. Poetry reveals or tells a truth, not fact. 

 

“What is your way into your poem?” This question Leanne poses to our workshop group is the essential question. It is the one I should be seeking the answer to. For finding my way in will take care of all the rest.

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Kilcatherine Church and Graveyard, 7th century AD ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

 

“What is your way into your poem?”

 

Something vital and tangible. Something real and describable. Leanne tells us, “The real things of the world are the entry point to the imagination. Keep your feet on the ground. Keep your writing grounded by writing from a real place…”

 

I find my way in on a small road overlooking Coulagh Bay, sitting in the rain, remembering. I find my way in through the memory of a little girl with her arms wrapped around a stereo speaker, trying to draw the music into her body because her ears fail to hear it. I find my way into my first poem.

 

The moment is so natural and unbidden. I hear Leanne’s voice saying, “Maintain a sense of awe in the initial inspiration. A waiting has to happen for the poem to come.”

 

What is a poem? is, in its essence, a question that needs no answer. No immediate answer. No complete answer. For an answer excludes the entire process of discovery. Learning what a poem is comes from studying the poetry that has come before, the poetry that is happening now. Experiencing what a poem is happens when awe and meaning embrace, when experience takes over from expression.

 

“…there’s part of poetry that’s always about what cannot be said.” W.S. Merwin