Nothing to Say: Master Class with Marie Howe

0001-37193920“We have nothing to say.” This was how Marie Howe began her Master Class at the writing conference I am attending this week. Her point was that words come to us, words write us, if we can open ourselves to receiving them. Marie, in her kind, encouraging manner, was determined to teach us something she believed we could all do—radical receptivity. “It’s kind of a relief,” she continued, “to know that you have nothing to say. Because it means you don’t have to be smart or interesting, or holy, or high. You just have to wait and see what comes out of your pen. Just pay attention and let go.”

When my favorite poet told me I had nothing to say, I’ll admit, it was kind of a blow. I mean, my blog is called Something to Say. But I received her point well because my process involves writing myself into what I think. I, oftentimes, have no idea what I am writing about until draft after draft has been scribbled off and I finally discover where the effort is leading me. “Look for the energy in your writing,” advised Marie. “Don’t look for ideas. Run your hand over the page. Where is the heat?” The whole process is, of course, incredibly spiritual.

She had us writing during most of the class. You could easily do the exercises on your own. Free write for two to three minutes on the following prompts:

I could not tell

I could not tell

Today I saw

Today I heard

From what you have written in these prompts, pull out the words and phrases that contain the most energy, the most heat, the most interesting combination of words and sounds. Then rearrange them on a separate sheet of paper. If you’re not surprised by what is pieced together, do it again.

Here are the words I received through this exercise:

I could not tell what my heart wants or needs

or how I feel without her beside me

voices of frustration, my inability to share

I had made for myself and filled my own cup

how could she stop

[adapted feature image: Darren Hester ]

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My Summer Priority–write, write, write

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Photo credit Ralph

People often don’t realize how hard those of us in an academic community work during the year. The enviable focus is on our summers “off”—which assumes a career of leisure in higher education. I am actually on a twelve-month contract, though, so I will go in to the office every day this June and July. But, with the students gone, the pace is slow, the surroundings deliciously quiet, and I can focus on goals and priorities that I rarely get to August through May.

June and July equal hope in my world. I start looking forward to these summer months in December, start planning what I will do with this time in January, make my reservations and pay my deposits by February. All this planning is what gets me through the incredibly hectic winter and spring that lies ahead.

This summer writing is my priority. Here’s a glimpse of my plan-of-action:

  • Online Classes: I’ve been considering taking some online writing classes as a convenient and fairly inexpensive way to challenge myself, get feedback, and generate new work. There are lots of places to take online writing classes. I’ve explored the Gotham Writer’s Workshops, The Loft, and Creative Nonfiction’s classes. I decided to sign up for Creative Nonfiction’s Summer Bootcamp because I like how they structured the class as well as the fact that it would require me to write and submit daily assignments. I am also taking a class on blogging (The Clumsy Blogger’s Workshop) that I discovered through the RevGalBlogPals community. I hope to learn more about utilizing the blog medium through this course and instill a good habit of writing and posting weekly. Remember that quote from John McPhee? “Writing teaches writing.”
  • Writing Conference: Every summer since moving to Illinois I have enjoyed a week at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival in Iowa City. This summer, though, a new conference caught my attention and I decided to sign up for it instead. This July I’ll be attending Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon. Kenyon College is known for its great writing program, which is what led me to explore what their summer institute offered. And when I found out that they were offering this week-long conference on spiritual writing with my favorite poet Marie Howe as one of the teachers—I was so there! I’m also really excited to meet Amy Frykholm from The Christian Century and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, The Velveteen Rabbi, who will also be teaching that week.
  • Reading for Writing: I cannot wait to dive into my books! I always have lots of books I want to read, but never enough time. So I try to be strategic and read books that serve a good purpose for me. I’m interested in reading different styles of writing—styles I might want to tackle myself some day. So here’s an incomplete list of the books I hope to read this summer and why:
  • Practice saying “No”: I used to think that I had to say, “Yes!” to every opportunity or else those opportunities would no longer keep coming.  Now, I know better.  Now, I know myself and my priorities better so I can discern whether or not an opportunity is worth acting upon.  Thomas Merton once said that the imagination should be allowed a certain amount of time to browse around.  June and July is this “browsing around” time for me and I plan on protecting it by saying “No” to any opportunity that doesn’t fit with this priority.  This way, come August, I can start saying “Yes” again.

Summer Pilgrimage into Poetry

photoIowa City is a place of poets and aspiring writers of novels, memoirs, flash-fiction, and sermons.  It’s a place of independent book stores, all-you-can-eat Indian buffets and Hawkeyes—everywhere—Hawkeyes.  I hope to post some of the writing that has bubbled up for me at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival.  But for now a simple note of gratitude.

First, I am grateful for my class, Poetry for Beginners (A Short Course in Attention) and for my teacher, Michael Morse, who taught me that, “More than intending, the poet ATTENDS!”[1]  How true this is (or should be) for pastors and preachers as well.

Michael introduced me to the Pantoum, the Ghazal, and the Sestina, specific kinds of poetry that I might have assumed were wild safari animals before taking this class.  We discussed voice, image, metaphor, sound, and structure—the “ways in” to poetry.  And we read poetry to each other—slowly, deliberately, thoughtfully.  The reader of poetry, as James Tate describes, instinctively desires to peer between the cracks of the prayerful, haunted silence between the words, phrases, images, ideas and lines.[2]  This is what I’ve been doing all week and loving the luxury of it—because in between those lines of poetry lay observations of life I deeply appreciate.

I am constantly in awe of the ability certain poets have to name the mysteries of the universe, or call forth a beautiful, insightful philosophy, in a few, perfectly chosen words.  The power of poetic language astounds me.  For example, this poem by Nazim Hikmet blows me away.

It’s This Way

I stand in the advancing light,

my hands hungry, the world beautiful

My hand can’t get enough of the trees—

they’re so hopeful, so green

A sunny road runs through the mulberries,

I’m at the window of the prison infirmary.

I can’t smell the medicines—

carnations must be blooming nearby.

It’s this way:

being captured is beside the point,

the point is not to surrender.

photoHikmet, a revered poet from Turkey often imprisoned for his socialist views, speaks deeply to me even though my life in no way compares to his.  His point, though, of never surrendering to that which oppresses, or captures, or negates the beautiful, is universally insightful and helpful. What an astonishing poet!  I’m so glad his poetry now graces my bookshelf.

Other new poets have found their way to my shelf as well: Bob Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop, and Stanley Kunitz.  After learning that Marie Howe (still my favorite poet) studied with Stanley Kunitz, I quickly ran to buy his book. (And yes, my husband will roll his eyes at me when he sees my credit card statement from Prairie Light Books.) Kunitz had me at “hello,” though, or, the words of his brief foreword entitled, “Speaking of Poetry.”  Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul.

If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn.  The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay.  Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence.  What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?

Does one live, therefore for the sake of poetry?  No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of life.[3]

Thank you, to the poets, for another nourishing, contemplative, inspiring week in Iowa City—the land of my spiritual, summer pilgrimages.Image


[1] Dean Young

[2] James Tate, Introduction to the Best American Poetry, 1997.

[3] Stanley Kunitz, Passing Through, (W.W. Norton and & Company, New York, 1995), pgs. 11-12.

about Marie Howe

tumblr_m11rrgvwUL1r13ilso1_500I was introduced to the poetry of Marie Howe this summer.  Last week, on a whim, I ordered all three of her books.  When they arrived in the mail I stayed up late to read each book cover to cover.  I highly recommend each to you:  The Good Thief, What the Living Do, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.  I don’t usually read poetry three books at a time.  But reading Howe’s poetry was like reading her autobiography.  She has known horrific suffering—a terribly abusive father, a younger brother who died of AIDS, and sexual violence no human being should ever know, let alone a child.  Sometimes I read her poetry in horror.  She is fearless in her writing.  (I cannot begin to tell you how I admire her for that.)  The horror would have been too much for me, I couldn’t have kept reading, had it not been for her faith.  It amazed me that a person who had known such tragedy and violence also knew that she was loved by an ultimate and abiding Love.

Sometimes we preachers wonder if what we have given our lives to makes any difference at all.  Sometimes we wonder if God is real or has any power to heal the horrific suffering of this world.  If we are honest, we wonder these things out loud.  Marie Howe’s poetry brutally unveils the trauma this world can inflict.  Her writing also unveils faith as a saving grace in the midst of trauma, a faith that heals when nothing else can.  For this message and for this extraordinary poetry, I am deeply grateful to Marie Howe.

From her book The Kingdom of Ordinary Time here is a Marie Howe poem:

Annunciation

Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it

I know it is—and that if once it hailed me

it ever does—

And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction

not as towards a place, but it was a tilting

within myself,

As one turns a mirror to flash the light to where

it isn’t—I was blinded like that—and swam

in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so

specifically myself I thought I’d die

from being loved like that.