Thoughts: Meanderings of a Born Again Poet

This morning I wrote two poems.

The first one was so so. A little platitude filled. Good thoughts, mediocrely written. The second one was, I think, pretty good.  I posted them both.

I tend to post poems as I write them. I write. Rewrite. Prune. Rework and post. Others perhaps, would let them settle and come back to them. There’s some wisdom in that. But I don’t.

I discovered something today. On days I write two or more poems, the first one is always the weakest. I thought that when I wrote today’s poems, and when I looked back a few weeks, it proved to be mostly true.

“Why is that?” I wondered.

As I thought about it, I thought about my process a little. I am a disciplined writer, in that I sit down nearly every day, at a certain time, and write. I write first in my journal, and secondly, I write poetry or essays for my various blogs.

Most days, it comes pretty easily. Like any skill, when you work at it regularly (and I write for much of my work as well.), you get pretty good at it. My journal writing sort of breaks the logjam loose, and away I go.

Except of course, when I don’t.

Some days I am just flat. I don’t have a lot of emotion going on. I am not struggling with anything. Or I am struggling too much with things. The words have to be chipped out of me like carving marble. Slow and painstakingly.

But I write anyway. And often, it’s not my best work. It feels (to me) like the struggle it took to write it. Technically good. But lacking in passion. Like the difference between an English landscape painting by Robert Gallon…

Robert Gallon

… And something by Salvadore Dali:


The difference, of course, is that by the time I have plowed through writing the first poem, I am loosened up. I am more tapped in. I have plowed through my own barriers and more open to being open.

“Write what you know.” the old adage goes. The first poem is almost inevitably what I think. The second one is what I feel. What I know. And it’s better.

The trouble is, I never know if a second one will come. Some days, all I get is the thinking poem, all technically correct with good, skilled writing and utterly devoid of life. Maybe I am the only one who sees it, but I suspect you guys notice the difference, despite your kind words on both types of poems.

So I post the first one.

You see, when I was in therapy after my divorce, my therapist told me I needed to write again. I had been a writer for much of my adult life and that had fallen to the wayside in the bustle we call life, and I had paid the price. NOT writing had been one of many factors in my coming undone. (not to mention the divorce itself.).

So she had me write. And she suggested I begin a blog. “Having readers, even half a dozen, will tap into your sense of responsibility and make sure you keep writing.”

She was right.

I began my blog, with no expectations of readers, and just wrote and posted. I still do that. Whether or not you care that I write every day, I like to pretend you do. It does feed that responsible gene (Dang therapists, they keep being right.) and keeps me at it. Good days. Bad days. I write.

And I post.

I don’t bank things towards a flat day or a day when might not want to write. I keep no backlog. This makes me trust the muse, God, inspiration, my own skill, to provide something every day. Manna, I call it, like the biblical bread God provided Moses and the Israelites in the desert.

Trusting that something will come, and then acting on that trust, day after day, generally means it comes. That’s true in poetry, and in life in general. So I trust and I write and somehow it works out.

That’s what I have learned. One of the lessons I have taken from the first half or so of my life. Trust and act, day after day, and things work out. I have given up trying to understand why. I am content with the fact that it does. When I write. And as I live.

Good poems and bad.

Just the act of writing helps me. I am glad when someone says something I have written has touched them or was just what they needed. I love hearing that, in fact. It gives additional purpose to my writing. But I write, ultimately, for myself. For my sanity. You guys get to come along for the ride.

Good poems and bad.

So now you know my process. There’s no grand plan. Heck, there’s no plan at all. I just do it. In the moment, whatever happens that moment. I’ve come to believe that writing, in general, is more powerful when it is less processed, and more real, more in the moment, with the emotions overflowing, our skill barely able to contain it. Raw.

That’s the hard stuff, of course. Most of us don’t like being revealing. I know I don’t. But, it seems to do me good. It seems to do some of you good. So even if it does not always feel good, it seems to be a good thing. And I do it every day. My sanity preserver.  One of the things that brought me back from the brink, many years ago.

So there you go. Meanderings of a born again poet.

Have a good weekend. Be well. Travel wisely,


Thoughts: Neither Fish nor Fowl

the gardens of Troy

The reviews are in.

I announced here a few months ago that I had finished my first novel. It’s been making the rounds of agents recently and the reviews are in.

It’s good.

It’s unpublishable.

It’s good, the agents say. Compelling story. Engaging antagonist. Touching. Powerful. All those words a burgeoning author wants to hear from people who are the arbiters of what gets published and what doesn’t.

But, they say, it’s not a novel. Too short. It’s not even a novella. Too long. It stands alone and it’s hard to figure out what genre it falls under.

Novellas, I have learned in my education on the publishing industry, don’t get published. Unless of course, you are already famous, in which case they will publish your napkin doodles in a special edition.

If, however, your novella fits a clear genre (like detective stories, or stories about cats), they might be able to fold it into a collection. But while there is a cat named Leibowitz in my tale, he’s a minor character.  My story, the agents tell me, is unique and wonderful.

And unpublishable.

Now, if it was part of a series, and about 20,000 words longer, there would be a place for it. I, unfortunately, am not one who can pad a 40,000 tale with half again as much again. I am after all, a poet at heart, a pruner of words, not a babbler. In a way, my not-quite-a-book is really just a long poem. Yeah, one of the agents said that too.

So what does a writer of wonderful things that are utterly unpublishable do?

I could can it, but that would be like murdering your baby as soon as it was born.

I could wait until I get rich and famous with some of the other things I am working on, all of which seem to fit the mold – long, clearly definable, and potential series kinds of stories.  And then when I become rich and famous, shove this one down a publishers throat and make them publish it.

Yeah, I’m dreaming.

Or I could self-publish, sell a couple thousand copies and be done with it.  That’s what I have done with my poetry and for poetry, that’s a good run. Not so much for prose. But it would get it off my table and then when I get rich and famous, I could force my publisher to put out a special second edition, along with my napkin doodles.

Yeah, dreaming again.

Or I could just keep sending it to agents. Maybe one, in a fit of madness will ignore all the rules of what makes money and take it on, find a publisher and I’ll become the next “Bridges of Madison County.”.  And in the meanwhile, I can keep getting all those wonderful, praising, encouraging rejection letters.

Hey, I’m not proud, I’ll take praise where ever I get it.

The thing is, this one is personal. And, evidently good. And utterly unpublishable.  It’s like a freak show in the publishing world.

What am I going to do? No idea. Sleep on it I guess. Stand in the barkers booth and call people in “For one small quarter, come see the amazing creature. Neither fish nor fowl, a two-headed manuscript sure to send you screaming in unforgettable frenzy.”

Yeah, you called it.

Dreaming again.


Poem: Writing Poetry


Writing Poetry

The words
are supposed to be simple,
a whittling away
of every excess,
a carving of anything wasted
or untrue.

It is a painstaking process,
first finding the demons and angels within,
then naming them,
telling their story.

Hard work
for a shy man,
but necessary
to give the struggle meaning.

And so you carve,
You experiment.
You test each word,
and release them,

only to discover they were never yours,
that they will be re-visioned,
hopelessly twisted
as if seen in a carnival mirror,

distorted to serve the soul
who reads it.

About this poem

It doesn’t read like it, but this poem actually began as a protest against the way newsmakers twist each other’s words and actions, changing words with half truths and twisted truths and an utter lack of perspective or kindness, leaving the truth dangling in the wind, an unrecognizable corpse.

The same happens to any of our words when we put them out there. Those that love us make of them one thing. Those that hate us make them another. It’s a strange way to make a living, writing.


Thoughts: Sanity, whether I want it or not

dark sky
I am sitting at my favorite spot at West Side Station, sipping my second cup of really good coffee. I have no idea what this post will be about, or even if it will be fit to be read.

Writing has been hard for me recently. It is not for lack of things to write about. Far from it. Every moment of my days seems full of fodder to write about. Events, people, places, emotions pile up like last week’s newspapers, each with its own story, each with its own lesson.

And, I have come to realize, that is a bit reason I write. I write to figure things out. I write to extract lessons from my life. I begin my days with a routine that includes journaling.

I have journaled since I was in college. My mom got me started, giving me an empty journal one Christmas and telling me that she felt like it would be good for me. And it has been. At times in my life, it has been my private madhouse, where I ranted and raved about my life. (I still do some of that.). I often say I want my journals burnt when I die, or I will be portrayed by anyone who reads them as a madman.

In reality, it was where I let the madness out and corralled it and left it so that I could go through the rest of my day relatively sane.

I stopped for a while, in the last years of my marriage. Like so many healthy things in my life, I slowly let it go over time as other things, the prosaic, responsible things of life took over my time. All those things were good in themselves – a high-powered career, active in the church, a great house with a few acres to maintain, my marriage, my kids. I won’t blame the lack of journaling for the marriage’s end, but there was something missing in those years. I was not taking the time to reflect, to connect my own dots.

And that is what writing lets me do. It helps me see things I don’t seem to see when I don’t write. It helps me carve through the noise and find the music in a way nothing else seems to do.

I began writing again at the urging of my counselor. It was so hard. I was so rusty. The habit of thirty years had become moribund and stiff. It felt awkward, forced. And mostly, it was pretty bad. All the skill at writing, at tapping into my emotions and putting them into words had left. I felt like a teenager, struggling to find the words for the things I was feeling.

She had me begin by keeping the journal. She had me begin by reflecting over the feelings of the day before. What had I felt? Why? It was sort of a list at that point. “I felt happy when this happened.” I felt sad when this happened.” Honestly, reading it was like reading something a four-year-old wrote.

Over time, I got better. My list of emotions grew longer. They became better defined. I wasn’t sad, I was discouraged, disappointed, struggling. And I began to add more to each emotion I felt. I would tell the story of what had made me feel that way. I would ponder why it left me feeling this way or that. I would delve into the past, wrestle with my actions, look into my soul.

Poetry is my best medium. When people ask me what I do, they are generally looking for what I do. But if I were honest, I would tell them I was a poet. Poetry sings to me. Carving an emotion out of an image, slowly paring back the fluff to find the essence is something I wrestle to do in my life, and poetry is a just that for me.

Which, I think, is why it’s coming slow right now. It could be about of depression sneaking in. Depression can do that during the holidays. But I don’t think that is what is going in. I think I’m just in an even-keeled place right now. Nothing is gloriously wonderful or unbearably hard. It’s all kind of flat. And flat does not inspire. It’s hard to write about flat.

Oh, I could write about a memory. Or a speculation. And I could do it pretty well. I am fairly talented and fairly skilled. I can craft good words out of most anything. I do just that out of my work as a copywriter. But when writing personal things. I am not a storyteller like some of my friends. I have a sense of humor, but I’ll never be a humorist. I am a poet. I am a watcher and a wrestler and a wonderer. I don’t do well with flat. There needs to be passion, whether it is positive like love, excitement or joy; or negative like grief, pain or loss.

Even when I write prose, which comes easier but I don’t do as well as poetry. There is a different discipline to prose that is hard for me. Now and then, like my recent post about community, or some of my writings on depression, the emotion kicks in and I do pretty well, but mostly my prose feels… well….. flat.

I am writing a novel, and I am near the end. It’s taken me a long time to write it. Like many things I write, it began one way, and it is ending as something else. I began with a story, something very abstract, just an idea of something that might be interesting. But somehow, as I have moved forward, it became less a story than my story. And it went from easy to write, to hard. A couple hundred page prose poem, with me trying to strip everything down to its essence.

That doesn’t work in novels, I think. Or at least, it’s hard. In long form writing, whether it’s a series of stories or a novel or a non-fiction book, the details matter, but in a different way than in poetry. In poetry, you are being blatant in making every word count. In a novel, every word counts but in a different way. They build a fabric, a background that has to be more subtle, more all encompassing. It’s like the difference between creating a 30-second ad and a two-hour feature length film. There are layers after layers. A hard thing for me to do after spending a lifetime peeling things down to an essence.

I am also nervous as I finish. I have people tell me that I expose myself a lot with my poetry and essays. Maybe I do. I don’t think about it much. But in a longer form like a novel, I feel far more exposed. I only just realized that. The story is not mine, but the emotions are, a couple of hundred pages of them. I far prefer to expose myself in dribs and drabs. It’s safer. You can always stop if it becomes too hard. You can always withdraw. Not so in a novel.

But then, much of the past ten years has been about fighting the urge to withdraw. That’s my nature. And became more my nature after my marriage and my life came unraveled. What I wanted to do is just crawl in my hole and quietly wither way. People do it all the time. They gently disappear. It’s painful to disappear, but it’s safe.

At least, it feels safe. It’s not really. Not if we want to live, not just exist. Not if we think we are placed on this earth to help others, which I do. And so, slowly, oh so slowly, I have stuck my head out of my shell. I joined things. I talked to people. I began to listen to the world around me. I began to listen to myself and share. And I wrote and out it “out there”. It was hard then, and it is hard now. I suspect it will never be easy again.

And so I write. Because it is and always has been part of my path to sanity. Because now and then, my words resonate and help someone.

And that is worth being uncomfortable for. That is worth the discipline of writing even when I don’t feel like it.

Like today.

Be well. Travel wisely,


Poem: Blood on the Sidewalk

blood on the sidewalk

Blood on the Sidewalk

Perhaps I should not spill
my blood so freely,
letting my heart pour it’s life
in the open, where everyone can see.

It is unseemly, this blood
draining so slowly, so openly,
glistening real.
It is disturbing, and hopeful both,

A signpost that says
this way is dangerous,
almost deadly,
but not quite.

About this poem

The picture was taken Monday evening in New York City. The liquid is milk, from a dumpster around the corner. But in the black and white light of the night, it could have been anything.

Those of us who share our story, whether in words or pictures or conversation, are also signposts, whether we realize it or not.


The Word Thief

typewriter 2_resize

A short story. Mostly true. 

The old man sat at my booth. His hair was gray and longish. Like his clothes, it was unruly. He pointed to my computer. “Are you writing?” he asked.

I nodded, my fingers hovering over the keyboard. I am a regular here, often coming in for a cup of coffee and to write. But I had never seen him before. I looked closely at him. Blue eyes, startlingly clear. Like a child’s, but darting, unsettled. A two day growth of beard, mostly gray. Yellowed teeth. I had seen that yellow before. My father had teeth like that. A smoker then. He had a cup of coffee in his hands. I had heard him order it. Black. No sugar. No cream.

“I used to write.” He said. “I was a word thief.”

“A word thief?” I asked.

He sipped his coffee and sputtered. I could see steam rising from the cup. He probably burned himself. “A word thief.” He repeated. I would come to places like this and sit and listen. No one pays attention to someone like me. I’m invisible. So they say anything, their whole life’s story. Love. Hate. Money. Children. Sex. As if I weren’t there. I’d hear all of it. And I would go home and write it down.”

“Why?” He had my interest now.

“Because people say things. Things other people need to hear. Things that would help others to know. But they won’t ever tell the world because they are afraid, or they don’t want to hurt anyone, or get sued. So it all gets lost and sucked up the chimney like smoke.” He took another sip of his coffee. “But I steal their words and write them down and no one knows who I am. They only know the words. Words that bring them solace, or excites them, or brings hope, or makes them laugh.”

He smiled. A wide yellow toothed smile. “It’s good to be a thief.” He paused. “Only….”

He looked up. “What would you write if you didn’t know anyone? If everyone who read your words was a stranger? Would it make a difference?”

I thought a moment. “Yes, it would.” There are things I could say that are to close, or too close to people I love. Things I would never share.”

The yellow smile again. “And that,” he said, slapping one hand on the table. “is why we need word thieves. Our secrets need to be told, safely. To save others from themselves. ”

And he stood up, and left.

I never saw him again. And I began to write.

Lenten Poem: Fifty Years On

Family photo004

Fifty Years On

You look at the picture
of your eight year old self,
fifty years ago, smiling unaware
of the journey you were beginning, unaware

of the mountaintops and canyons,
the bright still sunshine
and devilish storms
you would travel through, unaware

Of the power of love
to break your heart and mend it again,
of your own fragile weakness
and your remarkable resilience, unaware

that the Sunday School stories
read in a bright corner of the sanctuary
would have the power to guide you through the darkness
fifty years on.

About this Poem

This morning is Palm Sunday, and as I read in my bible, once again I was struck by the contrast of this holy week, beginning with the incredible entry into Jerusalem, then twisting and turning through the last supper, the last agonizing prayer in the garden, the betrayal, the torture, the death, and then… the Resurrection.

I stumbled on the picture above last night while I was looking for something else. Yes, that’s me in my bow tie sartorial splendor. I was probably 6, 7, 8 or thereabouts.  Roughly fifty years ago. I found myself asking what my eight year old self would think of the journey I have traveled so far. He certainly could not have imagined it.

I am still constantly surprised at what God has in mind, and how he turns roadblocks and brokenness into blessings. But then, to a God who can turn the crucifixion into Easter…. my little life is a piece of cake.


About these Lenten Poems

My friend Cathy Benson is on to something. Instead of doing without for Lent, she is doing MORE with a prayer project that is thoughtful and caring.

Giving up something for Lent is a church tradition, not a biblical command. It was designed to get our minds and hearts right as we approach the holy week and Easter. It’s a good spiritual discipline.

But I think a spiritual discipline of doing something more is also a powerful way to prepare our hearts for Easter. The Methodists, through their “Rethink Church” initiative have come up with a photographic way to do this (see below). I am going to add a poem with each image for the lent season to help prepare myself. Feel free to glom on to the idea, visit the blog and read, or share your thoughts and prayers.