Monday, March 28, 2016

the mundane itself

“We don’t need great writing to tell us that obviously amazing things are amazing, just as we don’t need high-powered telescopes to tell us that the sun is warm. What we need from great writing, most urgently, is an understanding that the mundane itself—snails, fireplaces, shrubs, pebbles, socks, minor witticisms—is secretly amazing.”

- from an essay by Sam Anderson on Annie Dillard (New York Times Magazine, 2016) via Poets & Writers

I suppose this has always been my not-so-secret goal - to find the amazing in the mundane. It's a practice, like any other practice. Some days easier than others. This looking, seeking: it's one of the ways one can live a fulfilling life, a happy life.

Gerard Manley Hopkins's last words were I'm so happy, I'm so happy. Oscar Wilde
took one look at the crackling wallpaper in his Paris flat, then at his friends gathered
around and said, One or the other of us has got to go. Wittgenstein said simply, Tell all
my friends, I've had a wonderful life.

- from "Poetic Subjects" by Rebecca Lindenberg

So, this next poem, very amusing. And I suppose you can just take it head on, and imagine Collins is really suggesting you scour the undersides of rocks. (In my perusing of the internet this seems often to be the interpretation). Or you can consider that he's making a bit of fun of the need to clean things up before writing. I'm one who requires my desk to be in a certain state of starkness before I can write. But one can take the whole cleaning thing a bit far, right?

Advice to Writers

by Billy Collins

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you fiind your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.

Fun to compare this poem to the poem "Dust if you Must" by Rose Milligan. 

A Woman Writer Does Laundry

by Anna Swir

Enough typing.
Today I am doing laundry
in the old style.
I wash, I wash, rinse, wring
as did my grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

Doing laundry is healthful and useful
like a washed shirt. Writing
is suspect.
Like three interrogation marks
typed on a page.

I don't know why, but these words by Helene Cixous have always motivated me to write:

"At times some small thing or a person is all it takes for someone to write or not write." 

Which I have always also read as: all it takes is some small thing for someone to write. And so I have always focused on the small things that work upon me, magically if you will, that enable me to write.

Dear Spring

by Charles Simic

Will you please hurry with your preparations?
We are freezing up north as you procrastinate
Like a rich lady with too many gorgeous outfits
To choose from, spending hours in front of
A mirror, trying them on and unable to decide,
While we trudge to the mailbox through wind
And snow, extract our unwilling fingers
From a glove to check if there’s a letter
From you, or just a bitty postcard, saying:
I’m leaving Carolina today, hurrying your way
With my new wardrobe of flowers and birds.
The tease! I bet she starts and forgets one of her
Hand-painted silk fans and has to go back,
While we stamp our feet and wipe our noses here,
Worrying the wood for the stove is running out,
The snow on the roof will bring the house down.

And so this is how spring looks at latitude 53. This was how the week began, though we're back to melting once again.

Sweet Darkness

by David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.


Reading. There's a nice round-up of Joseph Campbell's work on "following your bliss" on Brainpickings.

Also. On Lit Hub: "The First Rule of Novel-Writing is Don't Write a Novel" by Elizabeth Percer. I appreciate rule 9 especially:
Don’t Neglect the Rest of You 
Move. Love. Eat. Laugh. Rest. These are not things you have to do when you can’t be writing; they’re as essential as the writing itself. At its core, great writing comes from a balls-in approach to the things that make your life worth living, so if you’re neglecting them, guess what? You’ll sit down to write and have nothing to say. Which means you’ll reach for the ice cream and Doritos. And then snap at your loved ones. And then stay up too late watching mentally depleting television shows. And then wake up feeling like the underside of a dog’s tail. I’m sorry—that’s so gross. But some of you haven’t been listening. To me, or yourselves, or any of these other dire signs that you’re working at your writing.

You haven’t turned off the damn Internet. Wifi is a book killer. The state of mind that is created by multi-tasking on the Internet is a completely different state of mind from that which is required to reflect, write, and edit a book. There is a biochemical basis for this intuitive truth — like the little shots of dopamine from the ping of an incoming email. Even knowing that an email is sitting in your inbox unopened can decrease your effective IQ by 10 points, according to Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London. So when you’re struggling through a particularly vexing paragraph, trying to wrap words around a powerful, inchoate idea, it’s seductive to roll your cursor over to your inbox or scroll through Facebook or Twitter, or really do anything other than sit with the discomfort of articulation when things are, by necessity, murky.
Can't wait for: Whit Stillman's Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship which is actually based on Lady Susan, rather than Love & Freindship

Reminder: I'll be in Toronto on April 5th to launch Rumi and the Red Handbag along with Palimpsest Press's spring poetry titles by John Nyman and Mark Sampson. 

Lastly. It's spring break here and I have a couple of weeks off work in a row. I can't tell you how happy I am about that. Of course there will be travels and launches and etc. but I haven't ever taken 2 weeks in a row from this is quite the amazing thing. 

Wishing those of you who are off a lovely spring break, too. 

Also, wishing you time to go into the sweet darkness, to find the amazing in the mundane, and of course, wishing you all calm things.

- Shawna


  1. Oh, this post speaks so much to me, Shawna. I love that Annie Dillar quote. I'm going to have to read that whole article. Finding poetry in the everyday is at my very core too, I think.

    And then that David Whyte poem--I just posted it last night on my blog, and I don't even have a Facebook profile! Love that it turns out I was waltzing with you without being aware of it!

    thanks and a very good week to you too!

    1. Thanks, Juhi! Lovely that we're on the same wave length with the Whyte poem. xo

  2. Couldn't help but notice all the contrast here..clean/dirty, spring/winter, light/dark! And finding the beauty in the mundane has always been my goal photographically speaking, not an easy task, I know. I just bought Annie Dillard's book, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" and I can't wait to start it. Enjoy your break, Shawna!

  3. Beautiful photos this week, Shawna. It's daffodil season (finally!).

  4. I saw my first forsythia in bloom today. Loved your choice of poetry and photographs. Thank you.

  5. Beautiful daffodil photos! 'A house with daffodils in it is a house lit up, whether or no the sun be shining outside'~ A.A. Milne

  6. As, always a wonderful collection, Shawna. The final words remind me of the tradition of haiku poets to write a death poem as a final insight into the impermanence of life, they are sometimes beautiful and sometimes a sigh of resignation, here is the great poet Fukuda Chiyo-ni's death poem written when she was 74 in 1756:

    having gazed at the moon
    I depart from this life
    with a blessing

    My inspiration to write comes from something Ted Kooser wrote in his wonderful Poetry Home Repair Manual, the poet and teacher Linda Gregg, has her students try to notice six things a day. Like you, it's the small things that usually trigger something.

    The Anna Swir poem reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh in his Miracle of Mindfulness, "...There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes..."

    Thanks, again. Look forward to reading next Monday. Hope you have a good time here next Tuesday, it should be a sunny day.

  7. Enjoy your break Shawna -- it sounds like a treat. We will be away from everything include Internet for ages; back mid May. So there will be emptiness and silence at my space until we return. I look forward to hearing of your Toronto launch, more notes on writing, spring, and calm things upon my return.

  8. Thanks so much everyone! It was a wonderful week. And next up: Toronto.

    Thanks for reading. - Shawna


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