Thursday, June 07, 2018


A year ago or so, a woman I didn't know wrote to me to ask if I would be interested and willing to be the poet in a summer camp in a school district a couple of counties south of here. The Poet? "Sure!" I said.

There were a bunch of things I did not factor in to that "Sure!" To wit:
  • other, bigger grant I was also nominally a person of interest in/on/wherein/what have you. We hadn't yet been awarded this grant, but still.
  • there was big life-altering medical stuff happening in my family.
  • I had a book coming out--whatever that means.
The key here is, I didn't factor that stuff in. I just said yes

I'm sure you're ahead of me here, but a few weeks ago, I heard back from the woman. They got the grant. Was I, perchance, still available? 

Here's the part where I talk about my conception of time:
Time is infinitely subdividable into increments which can contain, potentially and approximately, three times the amount of stuff you think you can get done, and actually, twice the amount of stuff you can get done, if you don't mind a little bit of sloppiness and stress-induced forgetfulness and if sleep doesn't actually matter to you whatsoever.
I realize that this sounds like I'm saying that, through application of this theory of time, I get twice as much done as other people. But what I'm actually saying is, the sloppiness, forgetfulness, and sleep-deprivation you see me exhibit is the side-effect of a conception of time that is, quite frankly, inadvisable. 

Flash forward to this week, when I drove to points south each day, Monday through Thursday, for a morning with young people--first through twelfth graders--to write poetry. I said to one of my colleagues, "I've had the drive south and back again every day this week to consider my sins." We laughed, ha ha ha, because clearly what I meant was, don't ever do that again, LISA. But if that's the lesson that life was dealing out to me, via a lengthy drive forth and back each day, pray tell why I found myself feeling bereft today, when I realized I would not be working with these kids again? 

Today, everything went pretty well. The little girl, probably a first grader, who wanted nothing to do with poetry writing, was happy to dictate to me, so I could transcribe, an acrostic based on her own name.

"What's an H word?" I asked. "Huh huh huh?"

"Honey!" she said, while playing with three rather hazardous looking unbent paper clips, which she was imagining as characters.

"I have two names, Josh and Joshua," another little one told me.

"Which name do you like better?" I asked him.

"Josh," he said, with a tiny smile.

Before the various rotations of the summer camp started today, I arrived to see a part of circle time. This camp is located in a community with strong Native heritage, so upon arrival, the kids all took part in hoop dancing, or grass dancing, or fancy dancing, or jingle dancing. The littlest ones were the happiest to explain these various dances to me, showing me a little bit of their footwork and the positions in which they held their arms.

"You also keep nodding your head," one boy told another boy, who was showing me how you tapped your feet for the grass dance. They all nodded their heads.

Today, the woman in charge was showing the children how to put up a girl's hair in a traditional Navajo bun. One girl knelt while another girl and a boy helped the woman bind the hair with a tie, then secure it. The woman explained that putting the hair up was a way of showing respect for traditional ceremonies, such as dances, and that different tribes might have different traditions, for both men and women. I watched as the bigger kids paid attention, their little brothers and sisters sitting on them, or near them. 

I was watching--lucky enough to take part, even--in the intimate work of binding together a community.

The woman, when she first asked me to be a part of the summer camp, had told me that the curriculum had a strong Native American emphasis. But clearly, I didn't have any idea, really, what this meant, and for whom. And only by being there, by figuring out how to engage these kids in processes of writing, could I begin to understand. That, of course, is why I felt so bereft when I left today.

I told my colleagues about all this unexpected emotion at the meeting to which I raced after leaving the summer camp poets behind. It was, of course, a meeting for the bigger grant, which kicks into motion in T minus nine days. 

"One of the little boys [it was Josh, with the little smile] saw me in the gym as I was leaving. He had a little cookie in his hand. He said, 'I guess I'll see you tomorrow.' But he won't see me tomorrow." 

And then I cried into a Del Taco napkin, because even when time is infinitely subdividable, you still need lunch. 

"I'm fine, I'm fine," I said from behind the napkin.

My friend and colleague said, "Well, sometimes you just have to cry." She has said this to me before, and she's right. Otherwise, you just try hard not to feel things. And in the end, I'd rather feel things, to say yes, and to make sure that I show up at the powwow at the end of the month--"bring a lawn chair and a sun umbrella!" says the woman in charge--so I can see the kids' fancy dancing, help showcase their writing, and remember their names.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

When the archaeological dig is of your own stuff. (a memoir)

As I considered the ivy growing into my study

As I swept the floor under my easy chair

As the historian and I moved the easy chair downstairs, so that I could clean under and around it and maybe get a slightly sleeker chair

As I threw away a dozen old copies of the New York Times Style Magazine

As I rolled up an old rug so that I could clean under it

As I burst into tears

As the historian told me the reason I have so much stuff is because of a whole bunch of things that are right with me and not because I'm a horrible person





Lord, there are so many ways to begin this post.

Earlier this week, I sent my daughter this text:

my rescuer.

America: it is time, apparently, to reckon with my life. And why not? Tomorrow, I start a Poet in the Schools gig down in Spanish Fork, and in two weeks the NEH Extravaganza starts for four weeks, so why not excavate and simultaneously judge my own chaos? Because it just can't freaking wait one minute longer, that's why. And because my study is, has been for awhile, and as God is my witness shall not be anymore starting. right. NOW, a nightmare.

"What a nightmare," I said, as we turned the giant chair on its side, the better to wiggle it through a doorway.

"No, it's not, sweetheart, don't say that," said the historian. He was probably hoping I wouldn't burst into tears. TOO LATE.

"Actually, it's more of a description than a freakout," I said, calmly.

And THEN I burst into tears.

But we moved that massive chair downstairs. I've thrown away some stuff, and put stuff into bags to give away, and there is still way more stuff to go through. But I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it because it is time to be able to work in my study without having to either (a) ignore what is plainly in front of me--piles and piles of little books I've made, books I've bought, papers I've sorted once and then left to drift into other papers until they've probably procreated; receipts, art supplies, little notebooks; sharpies, pens, pencils; flash drives of various sizes and eras; drafts of poems...the list is endless! or (b) feel I am drawing near to becoming a hoarder or Miss Havisham or both. And (c) I want--need!--to have a calm, peaceful place to work, for crying out loud.

I am summoning up my most ruthless self, clearer of decks and restorer of order. I have been this person at times in my life, and I think I can become her again. Especially if my daughter is with me. She has offered me incomparable aid at various intervals. 

"I'm glad Sophie is going to help me," I told the historian. "She'll help me out, and all I have to do is let her make fun of me a little."

Once, she helped me clean out my kitchen. She held up a small pile of accoutrements (which shall remain unspecified and undescribed). I wilted.

"But [beloved person] gave those to me," I whispered.

"Mom. Things are not people," she said firmly. And into the box they went.

Things are not people, America, and the things are damn well not staying in my study.  

Friday, June 01, 2018

Bulletins from the outposts of writing.

Perhaps I haven't bumped into you lately, and so you have not heard me recite the saga of the Summer of 2018 and Its Epic Activities (most of the activities still to come--it's only June, yo). Oh boy can I regale you with this story, which has the following key plot points:

  • Summer has come, by which I mean 'the cessation of winter semester and the academic year,' and lo the Season of the Little Lows has crept upon us, even though it so creeps every damn year, and still it surprises me
  • My esteemed colleagues and I got a big ol' NEH grant, and lo in little more than two weeks, the two dozen participants in our Institute will be arriving in Salt Lake and whoa.
  • My roses are blooming their heads off!
  • I am going to learn SO MUCH from this NEH grant and all the things that will happen in the four weeks that our two dozen participants are here.
  • After the NEH extravaganza, there will be a family extravaganza, with children coming into town from far and wide and across an ocean!
  • Man, that NEH extravaganza seems massive. And awesome! (also: massive.)
I think academics have mythologies about the summer, which usually include stories of writing and research and progress on projects, etc. I know I do. I always imagine that there will be loads of writing in my summers, and this belief is both a promise and a little whip I flagellate myself with when it proves harder than I thought--again, happens every summer, and still it surprises me--both to set aside the time and to make the time pay.

All this is to say that this week, I found a way to lay hands upon three days without commitments, and thus I committed myself to write. 

Here how it went:


To be more specific:
  • On Monday:  

 ...which I did.
  • On Wednesday, I felt vaguely like I might be coming down with a cold, or, like a cold was on the doorstep, or maybe it was driving by the house. Yes: a drive-by cold that also was making me feel sad. Sad and tired. Making me feel like the best of mylife was over for me, and all the people I loved might love me back, but probably they had better things to do. Better things than, you know, being present at this very specific moment, making me feel less lonely. Also, I felt lonely. I sat at my laptop and wrote in a desultory fashion, some lines that had flowers and a balcony in them, and a pink house (the balcony was part of this pink house), the kind of crap writing that is basically just going through the motions. The poem I felt simultaneously calling to me, rather sternly, and simultaneously signaling that I probably wasn't up to writing it--the poem leered at me, and suggested that I was probably a failure, and without discipline, and a lazy writer, to boot. So I lay down in my bed and reread a novel I have read one billion times, then fell asleep. And then cried about it.
Oh boy.
  • Today, I put on some smart-ish clothes and went out to the new Roasting Co. (verdict: nice new place, much less food, the new second story makes one long for the old second story), and wrote some notes toward the forbidding poem. 
In between Wednesday and today, though, I went to therapy, which was useful. I have at this point in my writing life had loads and loads of experience with The Zero, which is what I call the feeling that I'm starting again from scratch, I know nothing, and various even more judgmental versions of these ideas. Judgmental of myself, of course. 

What I know now is that I am currently gathering what I need to write this poem. I might be gathering for awhile longer. And this summer might not have all the space in the universe for writing in it, but writing will still be there when the various splendid, massive, challenging, unpredictable and superb projects and delights of the summer have passed. Writing will be there, and so will I, and I will have gathered more of what I need to write this poem, to imagine this next manuscript, and even to align my life so that future Lisa will have more time to write, to gather and to deploy, and time to lie down with her feeeeelings, too. Because writing, for me, calls for all of that. 

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Swearing: a memoir.

Well, let me first just say that I began cursing as a small child. There is a small legendary story told in my family, about a time when I drove to California with my grandparents (is that correct? I was too small for this to be an actual memory, just two. My mother was having or had just had my little brother, and we were moving, so yes, I think it was my grandparents). Anyway: they had bought me a little set of stuff to do in the car that somehow involved scissors. The little plastic kind. Maybe it was paper dolls, which used to come with handy scissors, because you had to cut stuff out. (Bless these modern times! in which things come pre-cut-out, and thus you can play with them straight out of the box, instead of having to excise them from their papery origins!)

Cue a super-cute kid-swear: I am reported to have said, "These damn scissors simply won't cut!"

It's a very short journey from this adorable cursing to using the f word, with which I got comfortable as a freshman at BYU.
An interlude: 
BYU was a pretty weird place. 
1. Evening prayer in the dorms. Every evening? Seems improbable, but I think it actually was? 
2. I think the girls at the end of my hall smoked dope on the regular. 
3. You could legit get a pizza delivered through your window, courtesy of The Rusty Nail, which was across the street and down the way. (Also: I knew someone who saw some Osmonds at the 7-Eleven just next door to said pizzeria.) 
4. So. Much. Righteousness. 
...which made a perfect petri dish for people like me to experiment with lite wickedness, such as swearing.
At Ann Cannon's book launch tonight, she read a column about finding a swear box underneath one of her sons' beds, with a detailed list of all the possible swears and what they were worth, in terms of a dollar penalty. It was filled with IOUs, which were eventually supposed to be paid up and donated to a worthy charity. Mostly, though, just IOUs.

When we got home from this literary event, we picked up Game 1 of the NBA finals, Cavs v. Warriors--we got home just as the first half was ending. The second half started. Sometime early in the fourth quarter, a Cav who shall remain nameless missed a rebound he should have snagged and I swore up a blue streak.

"Maybe I need a swear box," I said. The historian laughed.

Well, that's probably never going to happen. However, I probably don't need to get exercised at an NBA game to the extent that a swear-dense utterance comes out of my mouth at an inconsequential missed rebound. (In my defense, the Cavs lost the game, and I am not [insert a density of swears] happy about it.)

I'd like my swearing to be mostly recreational, if I have anything to say about it. Do I? Have anything to say about it? I suppose I do.

I'm basically leaving the door open on whether I will reconsider my swearing ways, or whether--as with my erstwhile shopping moratorium or my desire/resolve to put away my clothes and/or not have more clothes than I can actually put away, let alone shoes, let alone books!--I will be a backslider and a fence sitter, etc., with regard to these and plenty of other self-improvements.

However, after hearing Ann Cannon talk about how writing a newspaper column helped her pay attention to her life--and also that keeping a blog, however intermittent, and something like the same effect--I swear that I am going to really, really try to blog. Which is to say: write. The world cannot be worse with just a little more writing, paying attention to my life, and turning that attention into words. Some of which will be swear words, but not most.

for Ann Cannon

Friday, April 13, 2018

On voice.

Perhaps you haven't heard, but I have been going to see The Doctors as of late. It is my new hobby.

Let me offer a brief history:

1. I was born, and apparently a doctor was present.
2. I had stitches when I was approximately four or five. Right by my eye, so that was scary, for everyone.
3. I had multiple episodes of strep throat, throughout my childhood and adolescence. I believe that my identity as a poet was formed in the Fevers of Strep, wherein once I thought I saw a spider as big as my fist in my bedroom but was too weak to even call for my dad to come get it, for like, five whole minutes, and then I faintly, feebly called Dad. DAD.  because literally it was as big as a truck. (See? hyperbole.)
4. I gave birth to one two three four five children, with no anesthesia, except for childbirth the first when I had a local, because no one was going to stick a needle in MY backbone, no sirree (see also: Our Bodies, Ourselves, and other accounts of heroic going-without-anesthetic from history).
5. I had no doctor for literally years.

But then my dad had a stroke and then my sister had a stroke, and, come to think of it, my MOM had had a brain aneurysm/repair. So my other sister and I figured we needed to make sure our brains weren't busy cooking up additional strokes on our behalf. Obviously, we needed to get scanned.

In my case, this meant finding a doctor first, so I could get a referral to get scanned.

Let me offer a brief history:

1. I asked my friends for doctor recommendations.
2. I asked my daughter for doctor recommendations.
3. I called doctors that had been recommended to me, and in short order, I had a doctor, and ergo, a doctor's appointment.
4. Thus was borne my new hobby.


At the reception desk: Please fill out these one billion forms and also please take this quiz about your state of mind. Are you sad? Are you ever anxious? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you sometimes have trouble taking pleasure in normal things?

Me: WHAT!? please.

Me (in writing): I would be glad to talk about these things with the doctor.

Me (in my mind): ...but I am NOT WRITING THIS DOWN, hell no, and you can't make me. (that last part I said out loud to the historian.)

In the room:

Nurse: Here is your blood pressure, not bad. How's about a flu shot? Take off your clothes, so you can be defenseless and vulnerable, because that's how we like it.

Me: (defenseless and vulnerable) (possibly doing a small amount of light crying) I hate this.

The historian: I know. I know.

With the doctor:

Me: I haven't been to the doctor in nine billion years. I have a skeptical relationship with the medical industrial complex (actual thing I said, which I was pretty proud of at the time).

Doctor: Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Okay, then, Medical Industrial Complex, we have  a match.

Doctor (palpating): hey, now, what's that nodule in your throat-stroke-thyroid region?

Me: the hell you say?

Doctor: how about we get that ultrasounded? Also, give me all of your blood.


At the dermatologist. 

Dermatologist: And now I will take a divot, I mean this mole, out of your back. Also, wear sunscreen unless it's a blizzard (actual thing the dermatologist said). Hey: benign!

REPORT FROM THE LABS (aka, my blood).

Doctor on the phone. You are not a diabetic. (confetti!)

AT THE RADIOLOGIST (brain scan).

Technician: what music would you like to be played in earphones that you'll barely be able to hear over the sound of the universal gears grinding while we look at your brain?

Me: Joni Mitchell, please.

[machine grinds]

Joni Mitchell: love came to my door with a sleeping roll/ and a madman's soul

AT THE ULTRASOUND CLINIC (throat nodule investigation, part 2).

Technician: lean back and expose your throat like a sacrificial victim.

Me: uh, okay.


Technician: Yup, that's a nodule.


(a) you got no aneurysms in your brains. (confetti!)
(b) yup, that's a nodule.

Doctor: well, you can wait a year and get that nodule ultrasounded again. Or you can go to the endocrinologist and get a fine needle aspiration.


Doctor: So we're agreed then.


Endocrinologist: thyroid thyroid thyroid (points to diagram) thyroid cancer (points to thyroid model) thyroid cancer?

Me: I can't hear one thing you're saying because the word cancer is somehow in usage in this room?

Endocrinologist: So we're agreed then.

Nurse: lean back and expose your throat like a sacrificial victim.

Me: FINE (used to it by now)

Endocrinologist: (sticks a needle in my nodule) Are you all right, ma'am?

Me: Well, it's not exactly delightful, but I'm okay.

(they spirit away some of my vital animal fluids and probably a little bit of my soul)

Nurse/Endocrinologist: stay right here--we need to make sure we have enough of your vital animal fluids and we may need just a wee bit more soul-juice

Me: (lays there like a sacrificial victim)

Endocrinologist: I need to stick a needle in your throat a couple more times

Me: ugh, fine.


Endocrinologist: Yup, cancer. You should get the left lobe of your thyroid removed within the next six months. Call my head and neck surgery guy.


Surgeon (who has a cold or something? so is wearing a mask, and is also carrying a huge knife(not really, just making that up. Hyperbole!)): I concur with your endocrinologist. Let's remove that left lobe within the next six months. Surgery surgery surgery. Also, the thyroid comes pretty close to your recurrent laryngeal nerve, so there's a chance, less than 1%, that we might damage that nerve, resulting in temporary or (very unlikely) loss of voice.


Surgeon: (who knows what he's doing/thinking behind that mask)

Me: (actual thing I said): Well, I have a lovely singing voice, and I am a poet, and I need to be able to read and also to break into song at the least provocation.

Surgeon: (thinks I am a loon, apparently, although who knows what he is doing/thinking behind that mask)

Me: (settles down) Ugh, fine. Less than 1% chance, you say?

Historian: (taking copious notes)

Surgeon (swishes out of room in a lordly way with his cutlass)

And thus, I will be having thyroid surgery on Monday. And I will be fine, and also my recurrent laryngeal nerve will be fine (less than 1% chance that it will not be fine). Statistically I will be fine.


Today, after work, I went to KRCL and talked with Lara Jones about poetry. (It's National Poetry Month!)(In related news, I have been too busy/preoccupied to write a poem a day, which I wish were not the case, but bygones.)

I have been thinking for the last year or so about voice, specifically my poetic, political, citizen's voice, and what I want to do with it. Ms. Jones asked me, after I had talked about a few poets who give me courage and make me want to write poems that might give other people courage, and beauty, and the will to act: What about your own poetry? When you teach students about poetry, or read  work in the community, or send it out, what do you hope will happen?

It's a question I realize, at this late date, I don't have a final answer for. I am hoping that's a good thing. Not so long ago, if someone asked me why poetry? I would have answered, because I can. But now, my answer is different.

This week, I read with Neeli Cherkovski, who said, among a bunch of other things, that all poems are instruction. The historian asked me if I thought that were true. Horace, the Roman poet, famously wrote in Ars Poetica that poems should both instruct and delight. I told the historian that I thought Cherkovski's claim might be true if you took a certain view of instruction--something like an Emersonian notion, that by reading or hearing poems, and thus experiencing the poems' ins and outs, turns, reversals, we are engaged in the forms of thought they embody. This, I guessed, would be a kind of instruction, I said.

I want poems, which are an embodiment of my voice--not the only embodiment, but one--to make beauty, to enact thought, to take the mind and the ear and the body, to incite movement and strike fellow feeling. I don't think it's too much to ask of myself as a poet, to aim for all of that.

I also don't think it's too much to ask of my surgeon, he of the head and neck and the fictive big knife, to be extra careful around that recurrent laryngeal nerve, because I need my voice, for itinerant singing, and because using it is one of the forms of my courage.


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