Tag Archives: The Writing Life

We Go, Departing to Dusk by Emily Strauss

Odd that earlier we existed,
felt our own substance before
disappearing to despair,
sometimes gone by nightfall.
We may linger awhile but
the lamp will be snuffed out—

and unless we steel ourselves
to loss, our own and more,
moons will dispel around us
like a vase of flowers with wilted
stems sinking into cloudy water—
then we will lose our grasp.

Surely, this early today, there
remain the skins of opaque ghosts
not yet torn from our ribs
though we may remember the feel
of yesterday’s body extinguished
in our blood, lingering at daylight.

Emily Strauss has an M.A. in English, but is self-taught in poetry, which she has written since college Over 300 of her poems appear in a wide variety of online venues and in anthologies, in the U.S. and abroad. The natural world is generally her framework; she also considers the stories of people and places around her. She is a semi-retired teacher living in California.


Workspace Revision: What to do with old journals

Waiting for the new bookshelves.

With July coming to a close and a new semester hot on its heels, this weekend seemed like a good time to “revise” my workspace. This has involved: 1) moving my meditation and yoga accoutrements from my office to the bedroom, where there is more space for such activities, 2) ordering a couple of new bookshelves, and 3) boxing up the stacks of books that were lining the baseboard under the printer table.

Though I’ll have to step around boxes of books until the new bookshelves arrive, I am happy with the shape this little project is taking, and particularly like having a meditation space that is separate from my work space. Once the books make their final migration to the living room, where the new bookshelves will be placed, I will have a reasonably clutter-free, dedicated workspace for freelance work and writing.

I also went through a stack of notebooks stashed in the closet to see what was important enough to keep and what could possibly be recycled or re-purposed. There were a couple of half-filled notebooks whose pages were occupied with lists andIMG_0585[1] musings that I was willing to tear out and toss for the sake of using the last of the notebook paper. Other notebooks were filled with lesson plans and agendas from classes I’ve taught in the past, most of which have also found their way to the recycling bin. This leaves one and one-half smaller notebooks filled with favorite poems that I copied from various sources over the years that I will continue to use, and two daily planners marked with copious notes, task lists, and the names and phone numbers for people I barely remember. I’m pretty sure these are headed for the shredder.

What remains are journals spanning the years from 2017 to the present which were written during the years I spent living in New Mexico, Korea, Kansas City, and, in the case of the the latest addition, Charleston.

IMG_0586[1]The year 2008 is especially well represented with over two spiral-bound college-ruled notebooks dedicated to, well, mostly morning pages. That was the year I dedicated myself to the ideas in Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” and was writing three pages worth of thoughts every day. I was all about process over product and writing through the superficial stuff to get to the good stuff those days. The problem was that by the time I finished my morning pages, I had to get to work, so didn’t have time to work on the creative stuff. The other issue that I kept coming up against was that I was pretty much writing about the same crap every day, so much so that I felt like I was beginning to affirm the things in my character that I didn’t particularly want reaffirmed. I thought that writing about what worried me would help me get past them, but instead it seemed just to compound them. So, after about six months of devoting my early morning hours to morning pages, I revised my practice and started writing about other things, like ideas, images and poems. There is still plenty of complaining and fretting going on in these later notebooks, but at least a few of their entries are interesting. The rest, well, the rest was necessary, even if it doesn’t exactly show my best, most intelligent self. They were the crap I needed to write though to get to the good stuff.

The most interesting notebooks are probably the ones I kept while living in Korea, a year in which the value of a journal became most obvious to me. I was very careful about documenting everything that happened to me and every activity I tried because I knew I would only be there for twelve months. Some of those entries spilled over into a scrapbook, which I am still putting together, and others developed into blog posts, like this one about Building 63. Still others served as inspiration for a number of poems written and will probably serve to inspire poems yet born. Of all the journals in my closet, these are probably the ones I most enjoy rereading.

Journals I’ve kept since returning from Korea contain a lot of projects and plans. Their pages are filled with notes on how to IMG_0588[1]develop ZingaraPoet.net in 2011 and how to organize 200 New Mexico Poems posts and readings in 2012. Their pages are where I discuss the poems of poets I admire as well as the progress (or lack thereof) I experienced in the writing of my own poetry. Still peppered with concerns about my career, complaints about my environment, and commentary about my current mood, these journals were invaluable tools for deepening my relationship with self, leading me to understand that I could, and can, depend on my own inner resources rather than on externals.

The most recent journal, added to the collection just this week, is mostly concerned with my transition to Charleston, and, having spent most of my life west of the Mississippi, this transition has been considerable. The despair, confusion, and hope for better days expressed in its early pages are still fresh, allowing me to bring only a small degree of perspective to these past two years. But, like the journal I kept in Korea, this one represents intense growth of the kind only available when living far outside one’s comfort zone. The kind of growth experienced when a person is determined to move from survival to efficacy.

IMG_0589[1]So what will I do with this stack of water-stained, yellow-paged, dog-eared spiral notebooks and bound journals from the past? Well, appreciating these well-documented years is a worthy activity. I suppose, too, so is the sense of posterity I get in seeing the stack expand and grow.

David Sedaris once said in an interview that he indexes his journals, a practice that I sort of tried — only I used multi-colored tabs to indicate which entries were poems and which entries had potential to become essays or memoirs.

For now I am content reading through my notebooks and journal with no particular purpose or plan in mind – just an opportunity to cultivate a healthy relationship with myself and a way to spend my time —

waiting for the new bookshelves to arrive.

Interview with Kansas City Poet, Catherine Anderson

Catherine Anderson is a Kansas City poet whom I met at a reading with former Kansas Poet Laureate, Denise Low, at The Writers Place. I find Anderson’s poetry to be socially aware and particularly compassionate toward the plight of the underprivileged and newly immigrated, which is also why I am drawn to it. It is no wonder her sensitivities lean towards such concerns, since Anderson has worked extensively with immigrant and refugee communities in the Kansas City area for a great deal of her professional life.  I was thrilled when Anderson agreed to an interview and am happy to introduce her to my readers this week. I hope her sentiments regarding the writing life find as much resonance with you as they have with me.

How did you come to writing and what keeps you going?

In the 1960’s I grew up in an industrial suburb of Detroit, half in nature and half in a rapidly changing urban environment. My father was a newspaper reporter covering Eastern European communities in Detroit and abroad, and my mother was a teacher, so I was fortunate to be living in a house of towering bookcases. Also, and perhaps not just as fortunate, my younger brother was diagnosed at the time with mental retardation and mental illness, a duality that kept him out of the public schools and made him ineligible for health insurance. Later, the diagnosis was autism, but by then the window of language acquisition had shut, and although he has grown into a sweet person, his language is severely disabled. The paradox of living in a family of storytellers, word wizards and comedians alongside a rather confused sibling who couldn’t do the most ordinary things has given me the gift of being comfortable in contradiction, uncertainty, and the absurd– most of the time. An unusual childhood resembling a circus act is not bad material for a writer. My late mother allowed my brother Charlie to roller skate in his bedroom, much to the disapproval of the neighbors. My father’s friends were mostly immigrants from Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, the Ukraine, Lebanon, and he had dictionaries from the whole range of languages these friends and contacts spoke. Between his good ear, their broken English, shots of vodka and his quick thumb through a dictionary, they entertained each other for hours in our small living room. Words and the absence of words were the central mystery of my childhood. Also, the civil rights and anti-war movements were major events in the 1960’s, and because of my father’s work, they couldn’t be easily ignored, even in the suburbs.

As a kid, I wanted to write because my father made his living that way, and it seemed fun and adventurous. When I asked my father what I needed to do to become a writer, he said, without hesitation, “learn to type.” This told me a lot about his approach to the written word – one of labor, and work done by hand. I was constantly composing plays for school, or creating a newspaper and I’d end up writing out copy after copy because I didn’t have access to a mimeograph machine (the kind with purple ink). However, my father brought home carbon copy paper from his office, and I could make at least five carbon copies at a time for other kids to read. Always I wrote in the smallest possible letters, to get in as much as I could, without wasting carbon pages. Those were the problems of the craft I encountered in trying to enliven a dull history assignment or interpret a Biblical passage. At least once, I used writing to get through the tedium of school punishment. At St. Thecla’s Catholic school in Mt. Clemens, MI, talking to other students was not permitted in the hallways, on the school bus or while eating. I was a repeat offender so often that a nun told me I had to make up my own penance. Usually, I wrote out a thousand times, “I will not talk on the school bus,” but for this penance, I researched various folktales of talking animals and the consequences of just too much talk. (Remember the turtle who flew through the air by biting on a stick carried by two birds? We know what happened when he opened his mouth!) I am sure what I wrote was didactic and convincingly penitential. I had no intention of entertaining the nuns at the Felician Sisters’ Motherhouse in Livonia with this penance (no carbons made) but that was the result my mother told me months later.

At the University of Missouri I studied philosophy intensely and was centered on learning German and French so that I could read European philosophers I liked in their original language. I was spending an enormous amount of time reading and writing my papers when I noticed that my language was beginning to become much more figurative. I was losing patience with the methodical discipline of philosophical thinking. At the same time, I worked as a desk clerk at local hotel in Columbia called The Downtowner, running from the front desk to my philosophy and language classes. When a major conference of phenomenologists came to town, I got to check all of them in, yet I was too shy to let on that I had read their work and was attending the conference. Instead, I helped Bill Minor, the custodian, spell “Welcome Phenomenologists” on the hotel’s neon marquee. Soon after the conference, I took Larry Levis’s poetry workshop and realized that I had found the art I wanted to practice, poetry. I worked hard on poems for two years, and then by graduation had won a fellowship to Syracuse University where I later received my master’s degree in English and Creative Writing, a kind of half breed of a program that was pre-PhD, and half MFA. I was not interested in the PhD program. Eventually I moved to Boston where I worked as an ESL teacher, community journalist, and finally staff writer for the health care reform organization that spirited through universal coverage in Massachusetts. By then, though, I had moved to Kansas City where I now work training healthcare interpreters.

Writing that was clear, direct, and about something in the world was the style admired in my family. Poetry was not in that category, unless it was written by an Eastern European and reflected the geopolitical state of post World War II Europe! Although my father and my mother both appreciated literature they thought a young person from the Midwest writing poetry was a silly affectation & were thrilled when I landed teaching jobs, or spent time working as a journalist because these jobs assured them I could make a living. Most poets experience some opposition to their vocation, especially if someone is worried that you’ll never make a living. The best thing to do is keep employed because the last thing in the world your family wants you to be is a penniless dreamer. Ignore the pleading as well as any testy remarks about your chosen art. Keep dreaming but count your pennies.

A feeling of adventure, defiance, and the possibility of transformation keeps me writing. Poetry has always been the essential lens through which to more deeply discern meaning in the absurd and unpredictable events of our lives. An appreciation for the paradox of being human, fated, and vulnerable in an astonishingly beautiful world is with me constantly as I write.

How do you keep space in your life, home, and psyche for the creative life?

Finding space and time to write is extremely difficult, and not something I do well. Some people have been able to accomplish the feat by taking on an academic career that may afford a little more time off (not as much as one would think, however) to devote to creative work. I started out teaching, but became impatient with the pace, and threw myself early on into anti-poverty work as an ESL teacher, activist and community journalist. This has been very demanding work over the years, requiring a lot of weekend and night-time hours. In order to write, I had to discipline myself to make the most of the time available, so that meant writing notes on the subway back and forth during the week, then spending a good eight hours at least on the weekend, creating poems from my notes. I also used every vacation and holiday to write, as much as I could. This became provincial after a while, and I wouldn’t advise it. There were times when I was writing steadily for the Chinatown community newspaper, or writing essays or grants when poems had to be overthrown for prose. Still, I always tried to keep the poetic line alive somewhere, somehow.

I often keep two or three notebooks going: one is a kind of a daily encounter group – what I’m reading, thinking, responding to. Very literal, very boring, almost a log. Another one is purely for imagery, and that can be as crazy as it gets, with drawings, doodles, big letters. The rule is that nothing literal is allowed into that notebook, though images and figurative language are allowed in the boring notebook.

Now that I live in a city without a subway, I miss the dream time that daily travel offered to the creative imagination. Since moving to KC, I’ve had to travel a bit in rural KS, and a few other cities where I find I can usually write in a hotel or a diner. The writing feels more alive, striking and honest to me when I pull it out of its usual hometown box. I’m still trying to re-create the sense of taking the subway while living in Kansas City, but haven’t been successful. There used to be access to a staircase at Union Station in Kansas City I could visit that from a certain angle that resembled the entry to North Station in Boston, but they won’t let anyone up the stairs anymore.

What did you read as a child?

I could get lost in the Bookhouse Books, a twelve-volume series my mother remembered from her childhood and bought me for my birthday. These books were chockfull of myths, fairytales, legends, history, all sequenced to follow a child’s developmental stages of reading. The introduction explaining the pedagogical intent of the series was interesting to me, as was all my mother’s infant development books. (I was the oldest in a family of three children.) The lives of those quirky medieval saints we had to study at St. Thecla’s were fascinating. And no quirkier a saint you’d ever find was Thecla herself who coaxed the female lions from devouring her when she was thrown into the arena. Through a series that was popular in the school library, I remember reading about the life of Luther Burbank and wanting to become an agronomist, and then Maria Mitchell, and wanting to be an astronomer. I read both Life and Time, following the Birmingham church bombings, the March on Washington, the Vietnam War, Haight-Ashbury, etc.  My parents had a copy of a remarkable book by Dale Evans of their disabled daughter titled The Necessary Angel, and it was one of the few I came across, as a child, that helped me to make a little more sense of life for a family with a disabled child.

In high school, I adored Walt Whitman, John Steinbeck, especially East of Eden, and Thomas Hardy, especially Jude the Obscure. I loved Joyce Carol Oates, whose book reviews I remember reading in the Detroit News, the paper my father worked at.

How do you approach the large task of putting a book together?

I am not sure if I am very good at it, at least for my own work. A book I have now in manuscript has gone through a baptism by fire to get the right order. For now, I think I’ve got it. That might change. Titles are also confounding. The whole process is so strangely difficult. One suggestion I have is to not necessarily group poems according to subject matter, but go perhaps for tone. Also, sections may not always be necessary. If you do use sections, you can think of the middle section (usually the 2nd) as a centerpiece for the other two surrounding it. I wish I had better advice for this question. Another thing to do is study the sequencing of books you absolutely admire and try to crack the code. Ordering a book is kind of like trying to make art that can only be seen from the sky.

A bit of advice about the poems themselves: ask your fellow readers to be as hard as possible on the book, and throw out poems that don’t hit the mark head-on, even if they have been published in the New Yorker, or Poetry.


Catherine Anderson is the author of In the Mother Tongue (1983), a book of poems published by Alice James Books of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the Cornelia Ward Fellow for Poetry at Syracuse University in 1976, where she received an M.A. in English and creative writing in 1979. Anderson has published in many journals, including The American Voice, The Antioch Review, and The Harvard Review.

Follow this link to read Anderson’s poem, Womanhood

Letter from Anyang, South Korea: February 8th, 2010

Walk to Work 4It’s gray outside and the sky looks as if it holds rain. The temperatures hover around the 40 degree F. mark, which feels positively balmy after weeks of below freezing temperatures.  I can hear chainsaws in the distance and know this to mean there are crews working in Pyeongchon Central Park, trimming trees around the perimeter and clearing dead or fallen limbs. There are always people working in the park to keep it tidy and beautiful with newly planted bedding plants, bushes, and flower, making it a pleasant place to linger any time of the day or night. I look forward to marking progress and change I walk through on my way to Hagwonga and Chung Dahm, where I teach, later today.

There have been two interruptions this morning: First, Fed-ex came to the door with a package addressed to me from Kansas City – a box of mail and Valentines gifts from my mother. Second, the pesticide lady, who comes around about once a month or so and sprays something odorless around the nooks and crannies of our officetel.

Yesterday I held a small-scale writers workshop for a few of the newly arrived instructors interested in same. We found a spot at the local Paris Baguette, a Korean bakery chain, near Holly’s coffee shop her in Pyeongchon and spent about two hours working from writing prompts for poetry, fiction and memoir. Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience, generated workable drafts, and are eager for our next meeting in two week. After our workshop, our party of six walked a couple of streets over to Chicken and Beer, or Chimaek, (a pairing of chicken and beer served as dinner or anju) for dinner. I’ve never had such wonderful fried chicken, so crisp and flavorful, and the owner provided us with lots of extras, also known her as “service.” It was delicious and a fitting conclusion to wonderful afternoon away from teaching.

Anyang Library: Pyeongchon Branch (South Korea)

Recently I decided to explore the Peyongchon library. It’s only a block away, so an easy walk. It has five stories, including the basement level, where there is  a cafeteria with standard snack bar type food, an outdoor “lounge” on the second floor, which will be a great place to hang out and read when the weather gets a little warmer, and five reading rooms for adults (not including the reading room for children and parents on the ground level). There is also a “wireless internet corner,” a periodicals sections and what looked like a computer classroom (it was empty so I assumed it wasn’t for public use).

As it was Saturday afternoon, the library was very busy and all of the reading rooms were pretty full. Really, they are more like study rooms equipped with cubby-like desks. I took my time browsing around and found a room that was less full than the others. I went in and found a desk to sit at and began reading. About ten minutes later a young Korean girl came down my aisle – I assumed she was going to sit at the empty cubby-desk next to mine. She approached me with a piece of paper. She had her thumb on it and wanted to show me something…I looked closer…everything was in Korean, but I recognized the number ten just above the spot where tip of her thumb was pressed. I looked at her in question and she pointed to the top of my cubby, which had the number ten on it. “ooohhhhhhhh” I said, and got my things together. I told her “sorry,” laughed a little, and made my way out of the room. I was a little embarrassed, could feel my cheeks blushing, but I was not daunted.

I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I left the library and headed to the Acro-Towers Starbucks, where at least I know the rules: buy a chai, wait for a seat, race to acquire it. Under no circumstances be polite and allow others who were there first get the next available seat. It just doesn’t work that way here.

On my way to Starbucks I reflected on my library visit. I thought, “I have no idea of how one goes about reserving a cubby in a study room at the library.” I had noticed an information desk at the front entrance, but the man sitting there looked more like a security officer than someone who would arrange for reservations, and since I really don’t know any Korean, I don’t know how I would even begin to ask him where I could get more information. How does one gesture the words “reservations,” and “cubby?” I didn’t even have the phone with me, which has a dictionary in it. And of course, the signs are primarily in Korean.  I did recall, however, one reading room that had large tables in it rather than cubbies and wondered if that isn’t a general reading room for which one does not need “reservations” to sit and read in. In any event, now that I have collected myself and thought it over, I will have to go back and investigate further.

Funny, every time I mention the library to other foreigners, they all seem surprised and state they did not even know there was a library in the ‘hood, even from those who have lived here for a couple of years. Unfortunate for me because that means they don’t know how it works either and can’t explain it to me. Well, I guess I will have to figure it out myself and be the one to inform them.