Monthly Archives: January 2015

Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life



Why Recycle?

It’s a good thing my grandmother decided not to make lamps from the spent brass shell casings she found near her cabin in the Mojave Desert, a few miles from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. She had quite a collection built up before a friend told her that some of them might still be live, causing a potentially deadly explosion.

My grandmother was an inveterate recycler. She saw the potential in what others might consider useless objects. A closet door became a headboard, and a record cabinet turned into a vanity. She regularly reupholstered her living-room furniture, taking sofas and armchairs apart and leaving them in pieces for weeks. Some of her odder creations included pictures made from human hair and doll eyelashes snipped from the dog’s fur.

As writers, what can we repurpose? Is there an article hidden in an old class assignment, a poem inside a personal essay, or a travel piece trying to escape from a book review? Does a potentially explosive topic lurk somewhere in the words and sentences you’ve deleted?

This is a little different from spinning an idea for its possibilities. As we all know, any idea we have for writing has numerous prospects. My October trip to Berlin yielded blog posts, an article for my column The Third Form, poems, and a personal essay, but that’s not exactly what I mean by repurposing. In this context, it’s more like making a quilt from old clothes – cutting the useful parts out and discarding the worn out bits. (Yes, my grandmother was also a quilter.)

For me, recycling tends to happen from poem to poem, with lines moving in and out of drafts, or into completely new work. The poem titled “telegenic” is an example of this: during an evening spent writing poems on demand at a poetry booth in San Jose last summer, I wrote a poem for a man named Mark. After he read the poem, Mark, an Iraq War veteran, sat down next to me and shed a few tears. The poem, based on a few sentences he’d given me, talked about coming home after war. I did not make a copy of the poem, but that night I went home and wrote a line in my journal: “Today, I wrote a poem for a man named Mark. He sat in the street and wept.” Those two sentences became part of a new poem, but I wasn’t satisfied with it; it seemed too sentimenwhy-recycletal and self-congratulatory.

The poem languished for a few weeks until I overheard the word “telegenic” used to describe photographs of the 2014 conflict between Gaza and Israel. My brain clicked and I dug out the rejected poem. I decided to make it a prose poem, and use “telegenic” as the title. The resulting poem was published at New Verse News .

It’s interesting that “telegenic” uses the two lines from my journal, almost exactly as I wrote them down, and none of the other lines from the rejected poem.

I’d like to thank my aunt, Geneva Goss, for reminding me of my grandmother’s repurposing projects, and giving me the idea for this week’s post.

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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life



I own more books than I know what to do with. I trip over them, kicking them across the floor; I find them in the dust under the furniture (“so that’s where Lord of the Flies went!”)

I had a Kindle for a while, thinking it would help reduce my piles of books, but I hated reading on its rigid little screen. I ended up buying a hard copy of every e-book I’d already bought, and then I tossed the stupid thing to the back of my closet, where it chirps every so often, Furby-like, begging to be charged up.

E-readers, in an incomprehensible effort to “improve” reading through technology, deliver “content.” But books aren’t merely content. A book is a physical object. It wears a jacket and has a spine. As books age, their pages brown and crumble. They’re even edible, at least to the booklouse.

The improved technologies of printing and shipping created a reading public: the newly literate, working classes of 19th-century Europe and America. It’s ironic that we now have a technology that aims to do away with the printed book altogether, creating a whole different class of readers who experience words on a screen instead of a page.

There are advantages to e-readers. Now we can hide embarrassing titles inside a bland little machine. No one need know that you, dear reader, are lost in the tale of a deviant named Grey. No need to hide that spicy bodice-ripper between the pages of Anna Karenina. However, if you actually are reading Anna Karenina on an e-reader, no one will glance over and ask you if you think the scene where Vronsky’s horse dies is a metaphor for what happens to Anna (that’s pretty unlikely in any event, but with the printed book, at least there’s a chance).

In the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of Poets & Writers, New York Times book critic Dwight Garner states, “I write all over my books, I really mark the shit out of them…so give me the dead-tree edition.” For a person who receives, and I quote, “twenty-five to thirty books a day,” that’s a commitment to the printed-on-paper word. My book-a-week habit pales in comparison.

I will let my stacks grow. I will try to find room for them wherever I can. I’ll give away the ones I can part with, and keep the rest. I will try to keep them against the walls of my house and not in the middle of high-traffic areas. The Kindle stays in the closet.


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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


Write Like a Kid


I have the two latest California Poets in the Schools anthologies on my desk: If the Sky Was My Heart (2014) and Sing to the Heart of the Forest (2013). The more I read them, the more I understand why I read them, and why I, and everyone who reads and writes poetry, need these poems. In his excellent introduction to Sing to the Heart of the Forest, Steve Kowit explains:

“Unlike many journals and anthologies of contemporary American poetry that relish ambiguity and opacity, this anthology of young people’s poetry is deliciously readable, the poets managing to be surprising and creative in their language without diluting their humanity and ability to communicate what they wish to tell us.”

The insights in children’s poetry often startle us. A third-grader writes, “Green is the mighty bite of a snake” and a first-grader, “The world is blooming / with you and me.” The imagery in these books pops from the page; it is undiluted, agile, and profoundly innocent. Reading poetry that children have written awakens something deep inside us: the big, raw world, dangerous and full of untapped experiences, some beautiful and some tragic: “I was cursed with / cancer when I was 8,” writes sixth-grader Cameron, “My mom was how / I kept going. / My dad is how / I kept the fun / in my life.” Cameron died in 2013 of leukemia at the age of thirteen; Sing to the Heart of the Forest is dedicated to him.

Children’s poetry reminds us of how the childhood and adolescent years shape adults. “I am a tall mountain that’s never been explored,” writes eleventh-grader Alex. “The air in the room is full of ideas but I can’t grab one,” writes fourth-grader Chaya. These lines have a clarity that adult poetry too often lacks; as Kowit writes, too many of us fall into ambiguity and opacity. Children’s poetry reconnects us to a more wholesome ambition: as fifth-grader Shelby writes, “Poems want to be used / not just as a jumble of words / but as a friend.”

Victoria Chang, who wrote the introduction to If the Sky Was My Heart, tells us, “When I read the poems in If the Sky Was My Heart, I was immediately brought back to childhood and the wonder and anxiety I felt when I was the age of these student poets.” As Chang notes, many of these poems are “beautifully complex,” and “so often filled with hope and optimism.” We could even write a prescription: read two children’s poems and call me in the morning.

None of these poems would be published without the efforts of California Poets in the Schools, a 50-year-old arts organization that places poet-teachers in California schools. For more information on CPITS, visit their website, where you can order your own copies of these and other anthologies of student poetry.


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Sticks and Stones: Memoirs About the Writing Life


Happy 2015! I wish all of you a prosperous and creative New Year. Thanks also to everyone who takes the time to read this blog.

Let’s kick off January with a post about writing book reviews.


The Art of the Review


In the Sunday, December 28, 2014 edition of the New York Times Book Review, contributing editor Alice Gregory reviews four books of essays for “The Shortlist.” Her first review is of Where Have You Been? Selected Essays by Michael Hofmann. She writes, “An underused binary when it comes to taxonomizing literary critics is to distinguish between those who write best in hatred and those who write best in love” and “there is something noble about a critic who is most brilliant when being laudatory.”

As an occasional reviewer myself, I belong with Michael Hofmann in the laudatory category. I don’t claim to be brilliant, just more comfortable landing on the side of appreciation rather than disapproval. Surely, a place exists for the negative review, but not from this writer. I’d rather not review a book I truly dislike, since I would have to write a soul-crushing piece that lives forever with my byline and the unfortunate author’s attached. I write reviews, to quote Hofmann, as “an homage (for the most part) to literature.” I want to welcome readers to books I like instead of warning them away from books I dislike.

This is not always easy. Friends send books with the hopeful query, “Can you review my book?” Which means, “can you read my book, write a positive review of it, and place it at a journal?” That’s a lot of work, and I don’t always have the time or inclination to review the books that come my way. However, I too have been the asker, for blurbs and reviews, and in the spirit of reciprocity, I try to return the favor whenever possible.

Reviewing a book is, in my opinion, the best way to understand it. Reading a book on its own merit is just the beginning; reading with the intent to review leads to a much deeper level of comprehension. A review is a short lesson regarding content, style, and relevance: it must also convey some sense of the book’s readability and interest. Among the questions I ask myself as I write a review include 1) why should anyone read this book? 2) why would anyone shut off all other distractions and give this book her complete attention? I try to find hidden gems or oblique connections. I include the best examples I can find in the book.

DSCN2971I do not mean to imply that I, or any other reviewer, should give only glowing reviews. As Alice Gregory writes about Michael Hofmann, “This is not to say that Hofmann’s writing isn’t without barbs – and better for it.” A review should not be a work of unabated praise, but a balanced, thoughtful composition that enhances the reading experience. In this “Shortlist,” Gregory writes mostly positive mini-reviews of Hofmann and three other essay collections, including an apt summation of what criticism should not be: “parasitic work fueled by a professionally productive inferiority complex.” Rather, she writes, it should “connect minds joyously across time and continents.”


Here are some of my reviews:

Canyon in the Body by Lan Lan, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Every Seed of the Pomegranate by David Sullivan

Chinoiserie by Karen Rigby

How to Make a Bird With Two Hands by Mike White

The Darkened Temple by Mari L’Esperance






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