One of My Favorite Poems That I Didn’t Write


“A Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God”


I praise the brightness of hammers pointing east

like the steel woodpeckers of the future,

and dozens of hinges opening brass wings,

and six new rakes shyly fanning their toes,

and bins of hooks glittering into bees,


and a rack of wrenches like the long bones of horses,

and mailboxes sowing rows of silver chapels,

and a company of plungers waiting for God

to claim their thin legs in their big shoes

and put them on and walk away laughing.


In a world not perfect but not bad either

let there be glue, glaze, gum, and grabs,

caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, and slips,

and signs so spare a child may read them,

Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.


In the right hands, they can work wonders.


Nancy Willard

Sticking the (Stylized) Landing

the landing

So the other day I wrote about my poetry midwife, Pamela, and how she has helped me, particularly in learning to pay close attention to the endings of my poems. I remember being at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference way back in August 1988, back when I was just a Writer Niblet, the poet Nancy Willard said, “Poetry is like bread. You can smell when it is done.” That may very well be true. But that is also assuming that you mixed the dough correctly and that all you need to do is add heat for a specified amount of time. Sometimes the ending comes out messed up because you messed up the start, so you can’t simply do a closure-style ending like a circle. Or you messed up the middle, which I think of as the Airplane Mistake, because if an airplane pilot is only one degree south of where she should be on her trip from Boston to Oregon, she may well end up in Los Angeles or worse.

I think of this in particular because I have been watching Agents of SHIELD lately and awaiting Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. One thing I have noticed about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how stylized a lot of the action is, in particular the dramatic landings. The person you see this most clearly with is Scarlet Johansen’s Black Widow, but you also sometimes see Agent May do this too.

may landing

The Urban Dictionary defines sticking the landing as meaning to “execute flawlessly from the beginning through the end. Follow through.” (“Stick”). The phrase originates from gymnastics. “When a gymnast lands a tumbling pass, vault, or dismount without moving his/her feet, it is called a stuck landing. The aim of every gymnast is to stick–if the gymnast moves his/her feet at all it is a deduction” (Van Deusen). More generally, it has come to mean “to finish an athletic, gymnastic, or other sports performance with an ideal pose or stance, especially after a jump or leap; (hence, also outside of sports) to do or finish well; to win” (Barrett).

I like the idea of an ending that is stuck solid to its foundation, unwavering. I also think that finishing well should not by necessity entail winning. Think about the 35,000 people running the Boston Marathon last month. Four won and 34,996 did not, but I imagine the goal for all but 100 was simply to finish well.

For a poem, this may mean you have an ending that quivers in the air in front of you shimmering with beauty. That is, often, the goal. But more often I think it is that you learned something from writing the poem and perhaps your readers have learned something from reading it.

Barrett, Grant. “Stick the Landing.” A Way With Words. 3 Feb. 2006. Web. 1 May 2015.

“Stick the Landing.” Urban 21 Dec. 2006. Web. 1 May 2015.

Van Deusen, Amy. “Stuck Landing.” 2015. Web. 1 May 2015.

Discovering the Cento


So the other day, I was reading Robert Okaji’s poetry blog and he gave an example of a form of poetry I had never before heard of, the cento, a patchwork poem made from the lines of other poems. Naturally, I immediately wanted to do this, and today I sat down and did. I picked out some of my favorite volumes by some of my favorite writers on my main poetry shelf (the one I can reach without a ladder or chair) and went to work. My cat jumped up on the table, settled himself under his tanning lamp with his feet on my wrist and watched. So here it is. I have listed the poem each line is from below. They are in reverse chronological order because I moved from A to Z and put the stack down backwards. Sigh. See what you think.


Ah, the shining pastures of salt:

Flames bouncing off the river’s back,

A photograph of an eagle just setting down,

Bright fog reaching over the beaches.

How poignant and amplified the world before me seemed.

In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,

Strengthening our embrace.

I mostly chose lines that had roughly similar rhythm and length and ended with a short line, as that feels more musical. I like it because it is sort of representative of the inner geography of my mind when I sit down to write: the inside reality is bigger and grander than the outside reality. And I have been writing love poems of a sort lately; I am not actually in love myself, it is only part of a project. Then again, May Sarton would say that all writing is a love poem because love is attention to details.

Willard, Nancy. Missionaries among the Heathen. Water Walker.

Troupe, Quincy. Snakeback Solo #2. Avalanche.

Piercy, Marge. What Goes Up. Stone, Paper, Knife.

Ursula K. LeGuin. Incredible Good Fortune, Incredible Good Fortune.

Collins, Billy. Marginalia, and Purity. Sailing Along around the Room.

Boland, Eavan. VII. First Year, Against Love Poetry.

OToole, Robert. Eagle Morning Strike. Photo.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer


In the end, we all write alone.

As a performing introvert, sometimes I revel in the solitude and sometimes I get edgy and want to talk to other people about the things I am writing about. Not imaginary people, like editors of journals and their subscribers. Real people with faces and names and opinions. At least, that is what it feels like.

I don’t know a lot of poets these days. Working in academia, I know a lot of fiction writers, scholars, science writers, bloggers and at least two recovering journalists. This is usually enough, as the issues we all face in terms of writing process and simply putting down the right words in the right order are ubiquitous regardless of genre. Having some writer friends is not only helpful; I would argue that it is necessary for your long-term happiness as a working writer. There are some things that only other writers understand:

  • the habit of leaving a notepad in the bathroom for 3 am inspirations
  • the frustration with having thought of the almost-right word (no, that is not good enough, dammit)
  • the victory of writing 1665 words a day for more than two weeks in a row
  • scribbling the lyrics to a new song idea on the inside of your Dunkin Donuts bag, sometimes before you get around to eating the donut
  • those white-noise days when you stare at page or screen for hours and produce nothing
  • the feeling of “Damn, I’m good!”* when you finish an exquisite bit of writing even you didn’t know you were capable ofdamnfinemug

You can experience the joys and pains alone, but it is exhausting, especially when you are also submitting work to those imaginary editors out there in Journal Land and receiving form rejections back in a much higher proportion than the acceptances. And, alone, you can solve the obstacles in your writing—the clunky transitions, the fifth draft ending that still sucks—but it will go faster with a friend.

When I think of this, I think of otters, who sleep on their backs on the water, holding hands so that they don’t get separated. Sometimes, you just need a buddy.


* A college friend of mine had a mug that said this. I have always thought it would be a great mug for a writer. George Eliot at the least would have found it invaluable.

Inspiration Tip: Revisiting Old Friends


One way I rev the engine of creation when I am stuck in neutral gear is to go back to one of my favorite poets, often Marge Piercy, Billy Collins, or Nancy Willard, but occasionally someone less famous. A while back I was updating the Publication section on my Curriculum Vitae, which entailed digging through contributer’s copies. During the 1990s, I published a lot of my poems about art in a then-new journal called Ekphrasis, which means–get this–poems about art.

It is still around, a great little journal, and one of the best things about it is that it publishes some really cool poetry/poets. One of the poets I discovered there was Simon Perchik, who writes these skinny little poems with lines that just blow my mind. His line “or perhaps your shadow overflowing again” (from “D111”) inspired a poem about a panic attack; “today is missing/the ground is missing” (from “D180”) inspired a poem about an anxiety attack on a hot summer day. I cannot find some of the other poems; they were not all about mental health!

The ending of one of my favorite Nancy Willard poems was put on postcards several years back in a Poetry in Public sort of program. This is from “The Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God.”

“In a world not perfect but not bad either

let there be glue, glaze, gum, and grabs,

caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, and slips,

and signs so spare a child may read them,

Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands, they can work wonders.”

Willard, Nancy. Water Walker. New York: Knopf, 1989.

More on Line Endings: Twofers

one_fish_two_fishSo I was thinking more about line endings while reading Nancy Willard’s book In the Salt Marsh and I came across some twofers (two for the price of one) in her poem “The Snow Arrives After Long Silence.” A twofer is what I call it when you read a line of a poem one way and then when you read the next line, you get a second meaning to the first line. For example, the poem starts:

The snow arrives after long silence

from its high home where nothing leaves

and you think that snow is coming from a place nothing can come from because nothing ever leaves there. But read those two lines with the third line:

tracks or stains or keeps time.

Then it makes sense that in the homeland of snow nothing leaves tracks, since snow covers tracks. This kind of careful writing invites equally careful reading to get all the possibilities. Here is another:

All day the snow sets its table

with clean linens, putting its house

in order. The hungry deer walk

on the risen loaves of snow.

So the first sentence is a simple image, but by enjamming the last two words of it with the beginning of the next sentence, we get a second image of the deer walking in order. Nifty, huh?

Willard, Nancy. In the Salt Marsh. New York: Knopf, 2004.Windsor_German_wiki_GNU-Martin_Morgenstern