A RUE Sampler

Thanks to Tin House for publishing “Hexagenia Limbata,” the last poem from RUE to appear in magazines before they make their debut, all together with a spine, in April. Here’s a sample of some other poems from the book that are available in journals online.

“The Petty Politics of the Thing” — 32 Poems

“Rue” and “The Bird of Paradise” — Stirring

“A Great Place to Raise Children” — Tongue

“Pennyroyal,” “Queen of Barren, Queen of Mean, Queen of Laced with Ire,” and “Regarding Silphium, the Birth Control of the Roman Empire for 600 Years, Extincted by Careless Land Management in the Year 200 AD” — The Account

Conversations with Plants: An Exercise & Reading List

As I prepare to go on a pretty extended book tour, I have been thinking about what one loses in these frequent vagabond periods that are so often for many of us part and parcel of the writing or academic life.

For a time I felt trapped on a farm in rural Missouri in a county where I had a hard time connecting with the conservative community around me. I developed a habit of talking to the plants in the pasture behind my house to ease this loneliness. My ways of listening in these conversations took the form of observation, research, sustainably harvesting wild foods and medicines, and learning the stories cantankerous hags and witches like me had been whispering about them for as long as people and plants have been friends. And I’m far from the only poem who interacts with her botanical muses this way – Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris, Kimiko Hahn’s Toxic Flora, and Melissa Kwasny’s Thistle are all books of poems born of sustained company and conversation with plants. It might be fair to say that Emily Dickinson is the gardener who first showed us the way.  

Since I left that place, I have been developing a new exercise in writing and living to create connections and a feeling of connectedness on the road. I thought maybe other poets would find it fun to try. Or that folks using Rue as a text in their creative writing classrooms would like to share this exercise with their students.

  • Find a plant you recognize from home (or one of your previous homes, if like me you’ve had many). If you are using this exercise in a classroom or workshop, ask the students to bring a plant with them from their front yard, a green patch in their neighborhood, or found on the commute to your meeting place. Ever since I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s chapter on plantain in Braiding Sweetgrass I look for plantain first. She describes it as a respectful naturalized plant, offering its many medicinal uses and, unlike many other invasive species, plantain manages not to displace indigenous species as it spreads. “Its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds.” I aspire to be this kind of wayfaring stranger.
  • Make a contour drawing of your plant without looking at the page – keep your eye on the plant and slowly trace its shape with your eye as your hand tries to track your gaze on the page. If you are honest and resist the urge to peak, your drawing will be very strange, but you will have really seen this plant for the first time. You could also try this exercise using touch, tracing the plant with one hand and translating the sensation to the page with the other.
  • Using field guides or google, research the biology of this plant. Learn its reproductive methods, its pollinators, preferred soils and drought tolerance, the other plants and animals with which it shares these ecosystems. Fill a page or three with your notes.
  • Search for the folklore of your plant and find out what stories people have told about it. Many of the plants you meet will be invasive, many will be indigenous. Be ethical and respectful as you decide which of these stories to retell and how. Remember how colonizing nations sent their priests and anthropologists to steal knowledge that was used to enable soldiers to follow stealing land. Be mindful of what histories you reenact and what futures you make possible with your words by considering the context around the plant stories you encounter. Consider your own lineages, resistances, complicities. Appropriating stories that are not yours to tell will only exacerbate the pains of history and increase your loneliness; honesty may have the opposite effect.

    This part of the research process always reminds me how deep and fresh the wounds of history are. I think often of Layli Long Soldier’s poems in Whereas where she writes of the grasses that are so important to prairie ecosystems, which means writing of the 38 Dakota warriors the U. S. Government hanged over those grasses, which means writing of the missing and murdered indigenous women, which means writing of racist cruelties. I learned from this book to hear how the grasses indict and demand restitution and restoration.  I also think often of Ross Gay’s “To the Mulberry Tree,” and how he can’t talk about the tree whose fruit he loves without noting the frayed rope among the debris in the park, before finding deep among the branches a hopeful vision “that none of us will ever die terribly, / but stay always like this.” In a meadow where I loved to walk, ironweed roots are filtering last century’s acid mine drainage from the creek waters above the defunct coal mines even as the ground around them trembles with fracking-related earthquakes. After doing this portion of research, write a paragraph or a page about what you have learned and what you hope to keep learning.
  •  Ask someone from the place you have reached to tell you the name of another plant you are seeing for the first time, one growing near your familiar. (If you are doing this writing exercise in a group, partner up and share the work you’ve done so far.) Ask this person what else they know of the plant that they’d like to share. Ask field guides about its biology and ecosystems. Write what you have learned and what you feel, enough to fill at least a page. Write about your own stories and the people you have met in this new place. Plants are precious, but you need not be precious about them or construct the lie of a human-less world around them. Tommy Pico writes, “It’s hard to unhook the heavy marble Nature from the chain around yr neck when history is stolen like water.” Read more from his book-length poem Nature Poem and remember for better and worse we are in this ecosystem with the plants and bees and candy wrappers and microplastics together.
  • Repeat this exercise every day you are on the road.
  •  Repeat it again when you return home, a changed person, to a changing place.

Poets Talking to Plants, A Reading List

David Baker, Swift: New & Selected Poems. Norton, 2019.

Wendy Burk. Tree Talks. Delete Press, 2016.

Lucille Clifton. Good News About the Earth. Random House, 1972.

Emily Dickinson. The Gorgeous Nothings. New Directions, 2013.

Camille Dungy. What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. Red Hen, 2016.

Judith Farr. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Harvard University Press, 2005.

Nicky Finny. Rice. Triquarterly, 2013.

Vievee Francis. Forest Primeval. Triquarterly, 2016.

Ross Gay. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. University of Pittsburg Press, 2015.

Jody Gladding. Translations from Bark Beetle. Milkweed, 2014.

Louise Gluck. The Wild Iris. Ecco, 1993.

Kimiko Hahn. Toxic Flora. Norton, 2011.

HD. Sea Garden.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly. The Orchard. BOA, 2004.

Melissa Kwasny. Thistle. Lost Horse Press, 2006.

Sandra Lim. The Wilderness. Norton, 2014.

Ada Limon. Bright Dead Things. Milkweed, 2015.

Layli Long Soldier. Whereas. Graywolf, 2017.

W. S. Merwin. Garden Time. Copper Canyon, 2016.

Aimme Nezhukumatathil & Ross Gay. Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens. Organic Weapon Arts, 2019.

Tommy Pico. Nature Poem. Tin House, 2017.

Aaron Shurin. Flowers & Sky. Entre Rios, 2017.

Tess Taylor. Work & Days. Red Hen, 2016.

Brian Teare. Companion Grasses. Omnidawn, 2013.

Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass.

Virgil. Georgics.

Maya Jewell Zeller. Alchemy for Cells & Other Beasts. Entre Rios, 2017.


Exercises in Creative Revision + Some Notes on Running a Revision-Focused Workshop

I recently had a chat with a talented poet working on a first book. This writer was in an ad hoc workshop group and wanted to know what I thought about some advice on voice that had been given. The advice wasn’t given carelessly or cruelly, but it did reveal that the giver of that advice was not a good reader for this kind of project. As happens sometimes. I love dearly some people who aren’t always good readers of some of my projects.

A draft of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”

But this student was stuck on that note in a way that reminded me of all the revisions I’ve seen over the years where a writer tries to implement every single suggestion and answer every single question a workshop raised. It reminded me of all the poems I’ve ruined over the years by clumsily stitching this person’s vision to that one atop my own lost draft.

Sometimes you have to ignore advice altogether, I told this young poet. Sometimes you need to do the move that was critiques twice as hard or do exactly the opposite of a recommendation. Sometimes you have to cut the parts the workshop loved best. But what I wanted to convey to this writer and try to teach explicitly in the workshops I facilitate is that the workshop is a small part – and in no way the editing part – of a revision process that works best when it is generative and playful.

A note: I have really appreciated and learned from thinking about how workshops can become toxic spaces for BIpoc, LGBTQ+, and disabled writers. Beth Bich Nguyen’s essay on Unsilencing the Workshop is required reading; as is David Mura’s, A Stranger’s Journey, on creative writing, craft, and how/why race must be considered as a crucial part of these subjects. This particular workshop group was versed in these ideas, and even proficient in innovative workshop methods like Liz Lerhman’s Critical Response Process. I’m thinking here about how writers learn to use the feedback they receive when they can trust the spirit in which it was given, as well as the cultural competencies of the giver.

One of Gwendolyn Brooks’ notebooks

In my workshop classes I’ve been trying to develop a Revision-Focused pedagogy. To that end, the most significant assignment I give is “The Big Revise,” where I ask students to revise a poem five ways. The grade is based exclusively on how boldly and radically they experiment from draft to draft. Frankly, I never grade poems at all, because I can’t imagine what it would mean to say a poem is an A, much less a C. So the only experience they have with grades in my workshops is via a rubric based exclusively on trying, experimenting, and risking. Depending on the course I might ask students to do a Big Revise once or to undertake this process every time a poem is workshopped.

Often the first (and sometimes second draft) in a student’s Big Revise portfolio closely follows the notes given in workshop. But after students have deployed this low-hanging revision fruit, they have to think more deeply and weirdly about the relationship between their ideas and an audience of readers. This is when the revisions start to get really interesting.

A draft of May Swenson’s “Women”

To help students imagine a wild, weird, radical revision process, I show them the revisions of some well-known poems, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” and also let them take a peek at the pages of one of my drafts in progress, covered up in scrawling margin notes. I also give them revision prompts to help inspire those 3rd, 4th, and 5th drafts:

  • Add new images and reframe existing ones. Make the eye of the speaker a kind of camera that zooms in and out, pans around, and endlessly seeks unlikely angles.
  • Complicate the chronology. Add three or more jumps in time.
  • Change the point of view from first person to third, third to second, etc. Try a persona. Try a different persona.
  • Enrich with research. Add a tangent that involves interesting factoids from science or history. Meditate on a story in the news that hangs heavy on your mind. All the better if the research seems unrelated to the poem at first glance.
  • Make the poem twice as long. Then make it half as long. Your new half will probably not look like the old one.
  • Cut and salvage. After every draft pause to notice what you might have lost from earlier drafts. Bring those beautiful lines, stanzas, and ideas forward, combining them with what you love best about newer versions. (Printing out the drafts and the cutting them into chunks that you scotch tape together into the new poem can be a fun and productive way to approach this.)
  • Play with form. Let the poem lead you to its form. Has your voice fallen into a somewhat regular rhythm or line length? Try to make that pacing intentional throughout the whole poem. Maybe you notice your lines are quite ragged and unpredictable – be intentionally irregular and disrupt those spots where the line lengths are regularized. Have repetitions emerged that might lend themselves to becoming a refrain, or even a pantoum or villanelle? If you are in the 12-18-line range, ask yourself whether the poem wants to be a sonnet. Consider whether you are writing subtly in the tradition of odes or ballads or other familiar forms, and whether you might like to make that subtle influence more explicit.
  • Polish the lines. (An exercise not to be used before draft 5). Focus here on varying sentence length and structure. Put a short periodic statement after a long and complex sentence with many subordinate clauses. Have a dependent-independent-clause sentence follow an independent-dependent-clause one. Reframe one or two lines as questions. Can you get away with an exclamation point? Try some asides and learn to love the em dash.

The Big Revise is a great process to use on your own as a writer outside of workshops too. It is one I personally use. But it is also great to enter a workshop conversation knowing a piece will have to go through such an intensive revision process after the workshop is over. That understanding reframes the role of the workshopper – no longer are they hypothetical editors praising or critiquing a piece, leaving the author feeling accepted or rejected. Now they are on the same team as the poet, working with them to brainstorm ways to see the poem with fresh eyes.

This relationship puts those giving the workshop feedback at ease too – many people (like me when I was a student) can hardly bring themselves to speak in a workshop for fear they will hurt someone’s feelings or because they do not believe that kind of evaluation of another person’s work is appropriate or because they are still developing a vocabulary around the idea of revision. Some students will only say what they liked about a piece, which is helpful for sure, but those encouraging and confidence-building notes do not always lead to a workshop that inspires.

I have seen in classes where I used this Revision-Focused workshop method how poets smile and eagerly jot down the ideas their classmates spitball with a spirit of camaraderie. And I’ve seen lovely, sustaining writer friendship emerge from these rooms, in contrast to the competitive or spirit-crushing environment that can arise when writers give the workshop a position of authority and judgement over the work. In a Revision-Focused workshop there are no succeed or failing poems or poets, there is only the writing, undertaken joyfully together.  

Getting symbiotic with scientists & film-makers

Poems on instances of symbiotic mutualism were commissioned by the True/False Film Festival. Ant/acacia expert extraordinaire, Dr. Todd Palmer, provided the scientific background. The brilliant multi-media geniuses Chelsea Meyers, Becca Sullinger, and Mike Marshall made this sensory feast out of my little “Symbiosis Sonnet.”

whistling thorn acacia
“Symbiosis Sonnet” was the text of this short at the True/False Film Festival

And be sure you don’t miss the one on the Lancet river fluke, with a poem by Marc McKee! Or E. Coli symbiosis with Jaswinder Bolina’s poem. And here is Nicky Beer’s poem on beloved ocean symbionts.