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Written Words in Silver City, New Mexico

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This past weekend I attended the South West Festival of the Written Word in Silver City. Silver City has a lovely compact old downtown, preserved partly by the collapse of main street into a flooding river over 100 years ago. It is now a big ditch.P1000639

Across the ditch from the visitor’s center is an area of art galleries, coffee shops, antique stores and a few other services, on sloping streets and sidewalks with huge steps at some of the corners.  There are even a couple of small independent hotels.  I stayed at the Murray Hotel. P1000629

The Festival of the Written Word is an enormous undertaking. I was told the steering committee consists of 24 volunteers, and many more assist at the event. There were as many as four events – readings, panels, lectures, etc.- going on at once, and one could easily walk from one to another.  At Javelina coffee shop I heard two young poets lamenting lost languages.P1000635

At the Old Elks Lodge, Demetria Martinez talked about writing and activism.P1000634

Later, several writers gathered in the same place to discuss their inspirations and their frustrations.

A sample of the mix of art and artifacts inside Elks Lodge.

A sample of the mix of art and artifacts inside Elks Lodge.

Many local businesses supported the event by hosting programs. At Seedboat Gallery I listened to two poets: Simon Ortiz read about injustices suffered by his Navaho people and the trials of Vietnam vets; Jules Nyquist shared her work in progress about nuclear weapons and their influences.P1000632

And those were just one person’s choices on one day. Between events I noticed some of the decorated walls around town. One building features native shapes.P1000636

Another looks like a Mondrian.P1000638

This weekend event is held every other year. I am looking forward to the next one in 2017.

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Vowel Sounds

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We’ve all been taught that there are five vowels, “and sometimes “y.”  But those five vowels make many more sounds, fourteen or fifteen, depending on which internet source you consult.  (Apparently this is not yet an exact science.)  The value of the sounds – which is important to poetry – ranges from the high of key, cane or kite (or bee, bay and by) to the low “oh” and “oo” sounds (coat, cool, or bone and boo).

The echo of vowel sounds from one word to another is called assonance.  I’ve been playing with that feature.  The trick, for me, is keep to assonance and not get stuck in rhyme.  I haven’t succeeded yet with the “eh” sound, because there are so many words ending in -ed: bed, bread, fed, red . . . .  Rhyming is not the point of this exercise.  The long “I” has similar problems.  Too much fine wine.

Here are a few experiments:

Evening: sense
and  sound calm us down,
which is why we say
Hallowe’en,
that shriek, a keen.

Sums hum
in the air. Money
troubles the bed.
Love
comes to shove.

Flash, dash, fat cat!
Clap for all that’s
under your hat,
in your stash.
What’s after?  Ash.

You don’t have to be a poet to play this game, but I think it’s good practice if you’d like to become one.

Going Out and Getting Back

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I’ve been off at a writers’ conference, without my laptop, and so not blogging.  My “re-entry” has been slow this week; I seem to be way off schedule.

Yesterday I baked bread and also spent time reviewing my recent poems to see what is ready to send out, what might go with what, what needs more work.  Only afterward was I reminded that it was Lammas Day, the cross-quarter day between the summer solstice and the fall equinox.  Lammas celebrates the first harvest; baking bread acknowledges the harvest.  A cross-quarter day is a time for checking on the progress of one’s goals and intentions.

Without being conscious of what I was doing, I was getting back on track with the calendar.

Stevenson Trail

I’ve been at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.  I stayed in Calistoga.  On one break I went for a hike in the Robert L. Stevenson State Park.  The drive up twisty Route 29 reminded me of trips along the California coast in my childhood.

Looking Down the Canyon

Looking Down the Canyon

I found a nice trail up to a monument, which marks the spot where Stevenson and his wife stayed in 1880.  There’s nothing left of the structure or any evidence of their having been there except a monument which was set up in 1911.

 Stevenson Memorial


Stevenson Memorial

There’s plenty of attention to Stevenson in the local museums as well, a curious situation considering that he only stayed in the area for a few weeks.  His writings must have been good publicity for the mineral springs of Calistoga.

Finding Troy

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The Greeks turn up in unexpected places.  Recently I found them in Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.  I suppose most writers are guilty of seeking out and devouring books about writing.  We read every one that comes to our attention, even though, after about five of them, each may only provide one new idea or trick for keeping at the writing craft.  It was a quotation on a LinkedIn group which brought Bradbury to my attention.  It had been several months since I’d read a good craft book so I tracked down a used copy.

The book is a collection of essays about Bradbury’s own work, his methods, his efforts at teaching.  It is well worth reading although you may, as I did, feel a bit jealous when he speaks of being able to type out a full story in one short sitting.

The Greeks show up not among the Martians and other aliens with whom Bradbury has spent most of his time, but in one of the poems that form a sort of coda to the book, in the form of Troy.  Troy is a symbol of archaeological work, the digging and finding of treasure, as it was when Schliemann excavated there in the late nineteenth century.  For Bradbury it becomes a metaphor for his finding his own unique path in life.  Others tried to dissuade him, but “I knew my Troy.” he says. He had to keep it secret. however.   “I dug when all their backs were turned.” he says, in order to avoid the scorn of those who did not believe.  He concludes the poem speaking about what he found:

One Troy? No, ten!
Ten Troys? No, two times ten!  Three dozen!
And each a richer, finer, brighter cousin!
All in my flesh and blood,
And each one true.
So what’s this mean?
Go dig the Troy in you!

How satisfying that he can stay with and expand that one image, that Troy that has been magical since Homer.  It rings and resonates.

For me, one Greek leads to another, one archaeological site leads to another.  Schliemann, who found Troy, also unearthed gold masks and other riches at Mycenae where Agamemnon ruled.  He went looking for Pylos, the home of Nestor, the wise older advisor of the Iliad.  Like Schliemann, I cannot settle on one site.  But Bradbury does promise many Troys.

There are nine layers at Hissarlik, the site of Troy.  Schliemann was wrong about which was the Homeric Troy.  He thought Priam’s Troy was the second layer; it appears now to have been the sixth.  Layers are also metaphor: the layer of history is overlaid by the layer of excavation in the tales of the place; between what we learn and what happened there is always a big gap, but the set of tales about what was found adds its own layer to the story.

Each of us, Bradbury suggests, has our Troy or series of Troys to find, though we would be wise not to talk too much about them.  Mine is the next poem project; it always takes some searching to find what I’m after.  May you be fortunate in finding your Troy.

Coping with the Critic

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I have read many books on writing and creativity.  I’ve probably reached the point of diminishing returns, but I keep picking them up, especially when I can get them second hand, because I’ve learned a lot from some of them.  Almost all of these books talk about “the critic.”  This critic may be the internalized voice of others who’ve told you you’re not competent to do what you set out to do.  Or it may be a voice all your own, telling you that nothing you do is measuring up to your own standard.  In either case, one of the early lessons in creativity books is the importance of shutting this voice out when you sit down to write.  There are various methods suggested: breathing meditation, write a letter, . . . .

I have found a different solution.  I promoted my critic to editor.  An editor must have something to criticize, so my critic now happily goes away until I have a draft to share: usually my first typed draft.  Then he comes running in.

At first he didn’t do very well at describing what he saw.  “Humph!” he might say, or “Boring!!”  Bit by bit, he’s picked up useful terms.

“Cliché!”  he says.  I underline the phrase he’s pointed to.

“Action verbs!” he cries.  I circle the “is.”

After such obvious points, he slows down, ponders.  “Why is this in such regular stanzas?” he asks after a bit.  “That’s your default form.  Does that really enact the feeling of the poem?”  My critic has been very pleased with himself since he learned the word “enact.”

“I was resisting it,” I say, noncommittally. “Form can pull against content.”  But I know he won’t accept my argument.

“It’s not strong enough,” he says.

“I’ll try it another way.  Just to see what happens,” I say.  I settle down to revision, and my critic goes off to look for another new term he can use at the next editorial session.  I can work alone now ―at least until he hears the printer start up.

Daily Horoscope

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I read my horoscope regularly―it’s on the same page with the word puzzles―but I usually take it lightly. I am a Scorpio and I know that is a deep water sign, which suggests depth of all kinds, deep thoughts or deeply hidden emotions.  I’ve been accused of both.  Lately the horoscope page has been telling me that with the sun now coming into my sign I have lots of energy.

aster in sand, Ghost Ranch

Some days I do have lots of energy, but I prefer to attribute it to the weather.  I am like the purple aster which blooms best in the fall and continues until the frost.

One time my horoscope went way too far, promising that I can do it all. “You will with joy accomplish every item on today’s list.”

“This is a trap!” I declare to the newspaper page.  Yes I could do it all, but I would have to spend tomorrow, or maybe two tomorrows, recovering.  I’d be back where I started then, if not worse, since the to-do list would pile up while I returned to normal.

“This must be a message for another Scorpio,” I argue.  “One who’s more organized, more disciplined.”  I am actually quite disciplined about writing.  The horoscope writer doesn’t know where my focus has to be.  My to-do list is all the other, smaller things I ought to do, the ones I will forget if I don’t write them down.

It’s silly to be talking back to the newspaper horoscope.  An artist coach whose work I read somewhere suggested that one shouldn’t worry about one’s list, because half of it won’t matter in the long run.  Which half would that be?  The glasses that need adjusting?  The socks that are due for replacement?  Triage itself takes time and attention.  Meanwhile the list gets longer.  That coach is right on the principle, however.  A focus on to-do lists is a drain on creativity.

Would it be accurate to say that we all have more important things to do than the things on our lists?  It all depends, of course, on what we put on those lists.  I never put “write” on the list.  I just do it.  I don’t put “love” on a list either.  We don’t need lists for the really important things.

Recommendation: A Wonderful Writing Workshop

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View from the Mesa

I have just returned from a week-long workshop at Ghost Ranch.  It was both stimulating and relaxing and full of kindred spirits in a spirit-filled place.  “The Ranch” has a long history, going back to a small dinosaur whose bones have been found there, the Coelophysis.  The name “Ghost Ranch” goes back to the Archuleta brothers, who told any would-be thieves or cattle rustlers the place was haunted―and no nefarious person ever came out alive to contradict them.  Ghost Ranch is connected to the Presbyterian Church but funded separately.  It offers a wide variety of classes from spring into fall, as well as a January term for students.

Anita Skeen is the organizer of, as well as one of the teachers in, the Fall Writing Workshop at Ghost Ranch.  Anita has put this together for the second week in October for something like fifteen years and has taught at the ranch for many years before that.

This year there were four classes.  While Anita taught one on The Writer’s Notebook, Ina Hughs taught Creative Nonfiction, Catherine Watson taught Travel Writing, and Jane Taylor led a workshop in poetry focusing on shape and voice.  Each teacher gave a reading, so that all participants could hear the work of all of them.  At the end, a joint reading of all the students gave an overview of the class approaches and assignments.

One afternoon, each teacher gave a short workshop.  It may be no surprise that the basic rules of good writing in all genres are much the same: details, emotion, a good beginning, middle and end, etc.,  but it is great reinforcement to hear this told in different ways for different kinds of writing.  Reminders are often as good as new material for encouraging the artistic process.  All of the teachers were entertaining as well as informative.

Our cozy classroom

The writing was all fresh work.  There were exercises and assignments, with freedom to interpret or adapt them to whatever flowed from the pen.  In my small class of three students, the variety produced from one assignment was a delight.  The mutual support and good spirits made everything seem even better than it was – at least in the case of my own efforts.  I came home with a batch of new bits and pieces to pursue, and new ideas about how to approach them.

There are a lot of different housing options.  I chose the cheapest, which were located up on the mesa, units of simple rooms with shared bathrooms.  This turned out to be a good choice in two ways.  First, the walk up and down the hill was good exercise to stir the writing muscles as well as the physical ones, and second, the mesa has the best cell phone service, the main part of the ranch being in a valley.

Will I go back next year?  Maybe.  Do I plan to go back before very many years go by?  Definitely.  Maybe next time I’ll find the words to describe the colors of the turning cottonwoods against the pines and junipers.  Watch for next year’s schedule to appear at www.ghostranch.org.

Juniper

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