We’re enjoying a lovely string of early fall days here in Minnesota. The children are off to school. I always feel like writing in the fall.

Fall in Minnesota

Fall in Minnesota

Here’s a poem by Mary Jo Salter from her collection,  A Phone Call to the Future.

Absolute September

How hard it is to take September
straight—not as a harbinger
of something harder.

Merely like suds in the air, cool scent
scrubbed clean of meaning—or innocent
of the cold thing coldly meant.

How hard the heart tugs at the end
of summer, and longs to haul it in
when it flies out of hand

at the prompting of the first mild breeze.
It leaves us by degrees
only, but for one who sees

summer as an absolute,
Pure State of Light and Heat, the height
to which one cannot raise a doubt,

as soon as one leaf’s off the tree
no day following can fall free
of the drift of melancholy.


In the “now I feel better about my personal chaos” category:

From an interview with Mary Jo Salter in New Letters:

Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter


NL: Another student wanted me to ask if, as a formal writer, you are organized and structured in your own life as well?

SALTER: Not in the least. I can tell you that I wake up at 4:00 in the morning and remember something I was supposed to do at 4:00 in the afternoon the day before. I am terribly disorganized. What I say in my poem “Office Hours” about having files on the floor that haven’t gone into the filing cabinet is really alarming, because I wrote that poem at least five years ago, and those same papers are still on the floor. No. I think I put whatever orderliness I’ve got into my poems, and the rest is chaos.


A big thank you to all of you who sent me mail and commented about life-changing books. I’m keeping a list that I’ll post in the future. I always enjoy hearing from you. So send me what you write or more on life-changing books.


Writing Jumpstart: September. Go for ten minutes. Whatever comes to you. Just write.


The Vertigo of Possibility

I enjoy the daily audio poems I receive via email from the Poetry Foundation because I can listen to them unencumbered by words on the page.

In “Prelude,” A. E. Stallings carries us along as we wait for the moment at the end of the poem when she reveals why she is moved by art and

Listen to the poem here for the sheer joy of it:

Did you notice the rhyming? The beauty of the language? A. E. Stallings is a contemporary poet who works with rhyme and forms.

Now that you’ve heard the music, read her poem below and note how she uses original rhymes and creative line breaks to give the poem a definite structure. I also

Monet's Water Lilies (MOMA)

Monet’s Water Lilies (MoMA)

like the way she writes about tears while avoiding clichés (i.e.”tears gushed from my eyes”) as her poem reveals how moved she was by the possibility of creativity.

On our recent trip to NYC, we visited MoMA and saw Monet’s huge triptych, “Water Lilies.” When I remember my feelings as I stood before the painting, I can understand “the vertigo of possibility” and some of what A. E. Stallings was trying to convey in “Prelude.”



Lately, at the beginning of concerts when
The first-chair violin
Plays the A 4-40 and the bows
Go whirring about the instruments like wings
Over unfingered strings,
The cycling fifths, spectral arpeggios,

As the oboe lights the pure torch of the note,
Something in my throat
Constricts and tears are startled to my eyes,
Helplessly. And lately when I stand
Torn ticket in my hand
In the foyers of museums I surprise

You with a quaver in my rote reply—
Again I overbrim
And corners of the room go prismed, dim.
You’d like to think that it is Truth and Art
That I am shaken by,
So that I must discharge a freighted heart;

But it is not when cellos shoulder the tune,
Nor changing of the key
Nor resolution of disharmony
That makes me almost tremble, and it is not
The ambered afternoon
Slanting through motes of dust a painter caught

Four hundred years ago as someone stands
Opening the blank
Future like a letter in her hands.
It is not masterpieces of first rank,
Not something made
By once-warm fingers, nothing painted, played.

No, no. It is something else. It is something raw
That suddenly falls
Upon me at the start, like loss of awe—
The vertigo of possibility—
The pictures I don’t see,
The open strings, the perfect intervals.

A.E. Stallings


Writing Jumpstart: Think of a time when you had difficulty writing or talking about an emotional moment. Use this line as a starting point:  “No, no. It is something else.” Then go for ten minutes saying (as best you can) what it is.

Crow School

Kay Ryan has a way of getting right to the point. I’ve been subscribing to Poetry Foundation’s Audio-Poem-of-the-Day. So each morning I get to hear a poem read to me. It’s a good way to start my writing time.

A Draft of a Kay Ryan Poem

A Draft of a Kay Ryan Poem

This morning “Felix Crow” was in my ear. It made me think of my last post, “The Secret.” So far (it has been only a few days now), I’ve been good about looking for that moment during the day when I see something new or beautiful or amazing.

Kay Ryan’s “Felix Crow” calls attention to those things we don’t always see as beautiful, like crows. We tend to over-look certain creatures who don’t meet the standard definition of beauty. Here in Florida, we certainly ooh-and-aah when we see the roseate spoonbills or a tri-colored heron. Not so much, a crow or buzzard. imgres-1

“Felix Crow” called me up on that. So I’m opening my eyes a little wider today. Thanks to Kay Ryan.

Here’s the poem. Just click to hear the reading.

P. S. For those of you following my earlier posts on writing prompts, the poem (and crows)   made me think of another writing prompt.  Today look for something others might not think of as beautiful. Later when you return to your notebook, write for ten minutes or more about what you saw.  

Felix Crow 

Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule—
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students.
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet.
Kay Ryan
Source: Poetry (November 2004)

Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift”

imagesAs I prepare for a writing workshop here at BIG Arts in Sanibel, I’ve been looking for poems to use as inspiration and a source for writing ideas. “The Gift” by Li-Young Lee seems like a good choice, especially for focusing on writing about family.

Here’s the poem and a video of Li-Young Lee reading and discussing the poem. If you’re looking for writing ideas today, try a line or two from the poem and go for ten minutes.

The class (“Jumpstart Your Writing”) will meet for the next five weeks. I’ll be posting some of our readings and writings. If you write something (poem, short nonfiction, fiction) inspired by the readings, send your work my way (  I’d love to hear what you’re doing and will post some of the writing on this site.

Click the link below to hear Li-Young Lee reading “The Gift.”

“The Gift” by LI-YOUNG LEE

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.


Li-Young Lee, “The Gift” from Rose.  Copyright ©1986 by Li-Young Lee. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions Ltd.,

Source: Rose (BOA Editions Ltd., 1986)

More on C. K. Williams: “On Being Old”

C. K. Williams, who is now 75, has been writing poetry since his twenties. Along the way, he has published eighteen books of poetry and has won almost every prize out there, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

I’ve read and admired many of his poems because of his willingness to take the plunge and stay with the long line. He holds an idea or an image and doesn’t let it go, wringing everything out of the language he pours upon the page.  (You can hear this in the poem “Whacked,” which he reads in the video, “On Being Old,” linked to my last blog.)

Courtesy of Jesse Nemerofsky
C. K. Williams: His collection “Repair” won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for poetry

I enjoyed watching Williams in the video, sitting there in his corduroy jacket behind the podium, reflecting “On Being Old.”  I liked looking into his lined face and hearing his voice.  Sure, we can read the essay (The American Poetry Review, July-August 2012), but how much better to see him before us, talking straight out about being old.

Most of us are in a state of denial about being old. One friend responded to my last post: “You’re not old.” Well, I’m certainly not young, so what do you call me? I’ll turn seventy this month. True, most of us don’t feel old. So what is it we feel? Let’s hear from those of us who stand at this end of life.

C. K. Williams speaks out from age 75.

He begins by making some funny comments about his sagging body when glimpsed in a mirror, naked, late at night, after a few glasses of wine. ‘’The body,” he says, “doesn’t seem to realize what an important person it is carrying around.” He tells us about trying to imagine his literary heroes, like Robert Frost in his 80’s, whose “face was like a sculpture,” in such a state.

We can’t avoid the subject of our bodies. We live in them after all. Now at almost 70, mine is beginning to show signs of wear. Yet it was able to take me to see the vistas of Machu Picchu, and for that, I am thankful. After the trip, it let me know that such climbing wasn’t as easy as it would have been in my thirties.  Yet how pleasing that my body is giving me this extra time to do the things I was too busy for when we (body and spirit) both were much younger.

Williams covers many topics in his talk: taste and how it changes over one’s lifetime, critics, the depression that comes from not writing, the changes in his own poetry, his past and the “stupid things” he said and did, his obsession with a future that terrifies him, his thoughts on death (“It doesn’t hang around the way it did when I was in my twenties”), and the gratitude he feels for the beauty and miracles of the present.  Finally he ends his talk by reading a poem entitled “Writers Writing Dying.” The final line: “Keep dying, keep writing it down.”

In The Art of Growing Old: Aging with Grace, Marie de Hennezel quotes Hermann Hesse in her chapter entitled “The Fecundity of Time.” “We who have white hair derive strength, patience, and joy from sources the young know nothing about,” says Hesse. “Watching, observing, and contemplating gradually become habits and exercises, and imperceptibly all our behavior begins to be influenced by this state of mind and the attitude to which it leads.” And I would add writing to those habits and exercises.

We are living—and dying—every day; we will keep writing it down, at every age.