KaBooM WritersKaBooM Writers

Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!

Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!


The KaBooM Writers Notebook: Our Blog

Writing as a Communal Art

 

I have just finished writing a poem a day during April. Having set that goal and (mostly) met it, it was a relief for the first few days not to have to come up with “something like a poem” in the midst of other obligations and demands.  At the same time, I felt bereft. The lull after the intensity of writing and sharing poems daily felt a bit like grief.

“Writing and sharing” – Yes. I gathered my poet friends via email, and we made the commitment to share a new poem daily no matter what else was going on in our lives. Part of what I miss this week is that conversation in poems, about poems, in support of our mutual (and solitary) work as poets. The surprises in the poems we shared. The way we allowed ourselves to write badly. The daily immersion in craft on some level. The encouragement of working daily. And, maybe most of all, the audience we were for each other. It’s this sense of being heard by astute but generous readers that I miss.

This was the fourth year that I have taken the month of April as a challenge to write a poem daily. This year my friends, poets George Ella Lyon (past Kentucky Poet Laureate), Sherry Chandler, Sue Churchill, and Martha Gehringer were my companions. (George Ella and Martha and I have written together in April for the past couple of years.) The level of writing was amazing some days—and bordered on silly on others (Okay, so we did cross that border!). We wrote for fun, just to see what might happen.  We could write three lines or three pages, revise or not, send something we’d started last year and wanted to rework. We could write something on our phone in a waiting room or spend a whole day wrestling with lines. The only rule was to write “something like a poem” – and even that rule was loosely applied.

As we wrote, I printed out each of our poems and put them into a loose-leaf binder. Another habit I’ve acquired.  I have four binders now, with poems from four Aprils. The binders capture the raw poems as they emerged – in the body of emails, as screen shots, or in documents we shared. Many of the poems where written “on the fly” – the fruit of productive minutes snatched from a day’s flow. A reminder of the power of setting an intention and of the collaborative nature of art. No, we did not collaborate in writing individual poems, but the poems we wrote and shared not only kept us accountable to each other but also sparked new work. What is writing but a kind of “call and response” between our words and all the literature that has ever inspired us?

When I meet with these poet-friends in person next week, we will read back through our “collected poems” of April, 2017. We intend to point out poems we particularly admired and talk about what works in these poems. I know we will laugh and moan about the “bad poems” we each produced and enjoy the freedom of letting them go. But we will each have a few poems we know we want to keep and revise—poems we see more clearly because of our friends’ responses to them.

If you haven’t tried this kind of shared writing challenge or if you didn’t get to write daily in April, start today – or write in June or whenever you choose to begin. Email some of your favorite writing buddies and see who will join you.  Not only is it more fun with friends, writing together deepens and enriches our work.

If you don’t have a local writing community, you might want to check out opportunities at The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning here in Lexington. I have found the classes and groups at the Carnegie Center to be supportive and welcoming. Lifelong writing groups often begin with friendships formed in a class or workshop.

And, of course, the web offers many virtual groups.  The links below may be helpful.

 

National Poetry Writing Month      http://www.napowrimo.net

Websites for writers                          https://thewritelife.com/100-best-websites-for-writers-2017/

The Power of Spring Cleaning

I am spring cleaning. Hold on to those images of soapy buckets and floor waxers. Don’t expect the smell of ammonia and vinegar. I am cleaning my office: purging files, reorganizing my bookshelves, checking old drafts, and sorting through notes from presentations made long ago.

The office is chaos; the project has been underway for a month and with each day I descend into a new layer of paper.

My original goal was to weed out books I wouldn’t keep, passing them along to new readers. I hoped to shred outdated papers and sort out saved mementos that my children might appreciate. I imagined how grateful they’d be that I spared them this effort.

Fellow KaBooM writer Leatha Kendrick writes that such a process is like revision, a seeing again of the work of a life. To some extent that statement is true. As I’ve worked I’ve reread essays and stories and arranged them in file folders. Many of these pieces are accompanied by early drafts and feedback notes offered by writing friends. Many pieces feel finished. From this exercise I am reminded that throughout my career I’ve been blessed to receive immediate feedback on my writing. Because I led writing classes, and because I always wrote and shared my work, I seldom had to wait for a response. Writing in community gives a writer a public and the payoff of quick publication.

However as my cleaning continued, I find that I’ve looped through revision. I find myself back to a starting point, a moment of generation.

Examples. In what I hope will be a penultimate step, I have three relatively short stacks of papers on my desk. One stack includes articles I’ve saved. My idea is that I will read those materials and write from the ideas gleaned therein. I see enough new material to supply a writing life lasting a good many years.

Another stack includes drafts of pieces that don’t feel finished. They are a living presence, waiting for the breath that will bring them back into existence.

The third stack remains a mysterious hodgepodge. Nothing in life ever sorts into three neat piles does it?

Spring cleaning has been good on many levels. One, I simply can’t go on acquiring books. I need to invent some kind of protocol to help me make decisions about future acquisitions. Suggestions are welcome.

Two, my stacks and my file folders contain work abundant enough to carry me to the end of my days. I need not ever worry about a lack of material.

Spring cleaning is giving me new energy and reminding me of the wisdom of letting something take longer than you meant to allot for it.

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Solitaire, Trolleys, and an Artist’s Way

Solitaire

Solitaire

I am not quick.

The air is cool.

A free-write begins.  A list of words shared: quick cool trolley solitaire Paradise . . ..  Four women at a table at Third Street Stuff, in Lexington, Kentucky.  Concrete trucks outside the plate glass window.  A utility ditch being filled.  The street loud with its repair.

No more trolleys

move us past the city’s

edge into seas of grass.

And who whitewashes

anything now, as we did

the chicken house that summer?

Paradise long afternoons

of solitaire—three of us

on Grandma’s bed,

cards tilting off columns.  Each of us quiet. Only the slip and slap of 8 on 9 or Jack on Queen, and later the cool side porch, its concrete smooth and gray, our paints and brushes laid out, Paint-by-Number making us feel like real artists.

What makes me feel like a real artist now, decades later? The time to lose myself in a page, slow sketching or seeing all at once the way sentences fit into a shapely whole, the possible poem inside a scribble. More than what I’ve published or where I’ve taught, what assures me all is well with my artist self is making something.  The never certain motion of pen across the page, picking up speed as I go.

If we weren’t so hard on ourselves, wouldn’t it be easier? Unforced as those hours with the shades drawn, the whir of a fan, turning the cards over and over until something fits.  Okay with losing the game – expecting to lose more often than win in the rhythm of our pattern-making, the order art makes, the way a shadow (the darker brown in our paint-by-number horse’s face) lets us see its rounded eye, the angle of the emerging equine cheek.

These summer days gone – 1956, -57, -59, -60 – stay in me somewhere, breathe with the slow exhale of times when the world was in place and I fit there, 7 always landing under an 8.  Nothing perfect or even okay much of the time. Everyone, even then, torn by grief. The air in those quiet rooms sometimes caught, sharp as a sob. Uncle Russell, steady, sweet, gone at 42 in 1958. A wound that sank through us that year, day by day, though it sealed over like the surface of Aunt Ella’s lake, like the early 1960’s years took her and her one-year-old grandson, too, both too soon. A breeze riffling the water, a cloud shadow on the yard.

A great big paint-by-number, this living – all light and shadow, splotches of white, greens, slivers of blue.  The image, different from the edge of each decade, emerges, even as I sit in this coffee shop writing with women I could not have imagined then. Together we remind each other not to be so hard on ourselves, to write as if we were playing solitaire, for the hush and slip of words, the pattern that sometimes shows through.  Because in many ways Paradise is always Now—if we let go and sink into making, into being.

 

 

With the taste of cherries

Today, on the anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, I’m offering appreciations for the work of Athena Kildegaard, whose new book Ventriloquy is just out. Last week Writer’s Almanac featured her poem “Ripe Cherries” (from her earlier collection Bodies of Light) that I found myself recalling.

Portrait by Laura Peterson. See https://athenakildegaard.com/about/

Portrait of poet Athena Kildegaard by Laura Peterson. See https://athenakildegaard.com/about/

 

In that poem, Kildegaard writes

I read that the men,
on their way to Gettysburg,
stopped along the road
to pick and eat ripe cherries.

That the fruit should not
go to waste.

She closes that poem with these lines:

That they should aim rifles
with the taste of cherries
against their teeth.

On this day, remembering the eagerness with which so many began battle, I hold up this poet’s remembrance. Another poem in that collection, titled “The Deaths We Are Called To,” enlarges the resonances of all those lives lost. You can see her reading that second poem and talking about the place the poem came from in this video (go to 8:30 in the clip). She mentions, specifically, looking at a book of photos from the war, by Matthew Brady, with her son and his friends. The boys are in seventh grade, and as they turn the page, they see a photo of dead soldiers. I don’t know if this is the photo she’s referring to, but the starkness of this one suggests it must be very similar.

Here’s to all the times we recall the taste of cherries against our teeth, and that sweetness causes us not to pull the trigger.

photo of the Civil War dead by Mathew Brady (ca. 1822 - 1896)

photo of the Civil War dead by Mathew Brady (ca. 1822 – 1896)

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The Best Kind of Slippery Slope

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Last summer I plowed through an arts and crafts fair looking for inspiration for my annual Christmas ornament. For the past several years I’ve been using up old paper goods (posters and a faulty book signature printed on paper with a high linen content) by making gift tags and ornaments in bulk.

A velvet Christmas tree with button trim caught my eye, and I purchased it. The ornament sat on my desk into autumn as I deconstructed it and plotted its re-creation in paper.

The original had once been part of a crazy quilt, I decided. I admired the colorful stitches. Could I embroider paper? Could I push paper through my forty-year-old sewing machine without clogging the feed dogs with pulp? I traced the velvet tree and made a pattern, dug out my jar of buttons, purchased embroidery floss, and ran a couple of crafting trials.

Not much about the original plan was successful. Perhaps others have had better luck embroidering paper. Not I—I crumpled paper with needle and thread. I never got around to trying to stitch the layers on my sewing machine.

So Revision #1 began. I could not simply copy the velvet Christmas tree. I was disappointed. I had liked the idea of decorative stitching as a way to distinguish my 2015 ornament, a way to make it less black and white. Then I remembered that while it may be hard to embroider paper, Mohawk superfine loves stamp ink, so I stamped away.

From that point it was the best kind of slippery slope to the final product: a flat ornament became three-dimensional thanks to a friend with a good eye. His casual comment that the tree might be made to look more like a little book led to additional layers and to stitching things together with a bookbinding technique—and to my remembering that paper can easily be sewn when you pre-punch holes with an awl.

The “published” form of the ornament looked little like its prototype with the exception of its general shape and jaunty button hanger. But I was pleased with the outcome and felt I’d produced something that looked like me.

As I prepared for a December 21 writing class at a local retirement community, I realized I had a teachable moment. Not only would we write about trees, but also I could talk about finding my way as an ornament maker. On the one hand was a piece of art I liked but couldn’t replicate. On the other was an ornament I made by trusting my own experiences, materials, and skills. I had to enter into the creative process not so much with a fixed end in mind, but with faith that through fretting and failing, by seeking feedback and trying again, I could make a product that was all mine.

As I gifted the last seven trees to members of the class, heads nodded around the table. Several members told me they far preferred my paper tree to the velvet one. Of course they did. We all know that with effort and trust in what we know, by relying on vocabulary we’re comfortable with, we can find our way as artists.

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The Season Turns, and History is in the Air

“We sure need some rain” is the refrain heard as leaves crunch underfoot. The morning sunlight takes longer to show itself, and the evening dark creeps more quickly than we expect. The season is turning. So many of these words could apply to lives lived generations before our own. While the feet of those earlier people would not have trod the asphalt and concrete my feet know, their sense of seasons, their concern for the weather — so much of this entirely human experience would be theirs as well.

Unidentified Union Soldier and FamilyFrom the Library of Congress, “Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters”

Yet my life is so different from those so long ago, a fact I am reminded of this as this week on PBS stations, Ken Burns’s Civil War series is rebroadcast. For lessons in history more up close and personal in Central Kentucky, Camp Nelson holds its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the war this coming weekend.

As I watched the images of the first episode of that series scroll past last night, I was struck by the use to which Burns put the photos. Unidentified Union Soldier and FamilyBy focusing on the hands of the photographic subjects, for example, so that as viewers we are reminded that these people reached for each other for comfort and reassurance even in the photo studio, Burns manages to cause us to see what we might otherwise miss. In this family photo, I imagine the daughter to the father’s right slipped her hand between his, even as she watches the camera with her chin slightly lifted, her gaze electric.

Writing about history when we are not historians can be challenging, but allowing historical artifacts and words to move us, and then prompt us to respond, strikes me as an essential activity. Last night as my family watched the television, my son, a senior in high school, recited whole passages as the actors read from letters and journals. “How do you know that?” I asked, startled. “The Titus Andronicus album Monitor is all about the Civil War,” he shrugged. “I guess they used a lot of these quotes for their lyrics.” What a resource he has, to know, by heart, many of these lines.

History lives as long as we recall it to ourselves. Participating in the lives of those who came before us by reminding ourselves of their struggles, hopes, and dreams, enlarges our world. As I recall the spring that lead to this autumn, I find myself recalling the cycles of lives that breathed air so similar to my own. It’s a humbling sensation, but also one that grants me essential perspective.

 

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The Worth of the Writing Life

Glendalough, Ireland 1

The frame for the Canterbury Tales, one of the early works of literature in the English language, was a pilgrimage.  As the characters make their way along the road, having set aside their everyday lives for a time, the travelers share the stories that make up the collection of tales. It was a natural and effective way to structure that important work, and the connection it suggests between pilgrimage and literature seems particularly apt.

Learning to shape a love of the written word into an artistic offering is a journey in itself. When we commit to being writers, we set off on a pilgrimage. We set aside the urgent and relentless concerns of everyday life, for at least some part of the day or week, and focus on something that calls to our higher selves. We learn to see the world differently, becoming more careful observers in the context of the work we do. We form relationships with like-minded souls, fellow travelers on the same road, whom we might be unlikely to meet in any other way.

We have a destination in mind—publishing the book that elevates us from writers to authors, hopefully with the backing of a respected press and to the acclaim of critics and readers. A truly crazy dream is for sales figures that make for financial success as well. But what if that doesn’t happen?

Whether the path is through self-publishing or finding a publisher, the market is a wild and woolly place. The currency has more to do with gaining attention than writing well. Some wonderful writers have excellent careers, and that is something to celebrate. Yet it’s entirely possible to be a publishing success without committing to excellent work. I would like to believe that all good work will find its audience, but I’m not convinced.

With the outcome so uncertain, what would be the point of the writing life? For me, the reward has been the journey with my writing friends. The camaraderie in the shared devotion to our art has elevated my life and made life as a writer meaningful.

I don’t know who I would be if I had not claimed the desire to become a writer, learned to write well, and connected with others whose souls are fed through writing. How my work is received is out of my hands. When I can let go of the outcome and appreciate how devotion to the work makes me more fully alive, I find it easier to hold the destination loosely. I appreciate the satisfaction that comes from doing the work. And I remember that being part of a community that truly values the written word is itself a privilege.

 

 

Invite Yourself into Your Life

Welcome

 

Most days I rise early to spend a little time alone.  What I want from these morning hours is a sense of welcome to the day.  That feeling we get when we approach the door of a home as an honored guest, certain of comfort and cheer within.  The gift of hospitality.

What hospitality do I offer myself day-to-day? And how can I create it?  It seems a basic courtesy I might do myself to simply welcome the me of me into each instant, each hour.  Instead I find myself too often anxious, screened off from vitality in a world where there are screens everywhere — digital tv, smartphones, iPads, Kindles — broadcasting everything from details of the latest atrocities to mundane street corner murders, to pleas for money for every kind of cause to “sharing” of cute photos of grandkids or of cats Photoshopped to impossible expressions and attitudes.  I long for the squeal and slap of a wooden screen door interrupting the whirr of cicadas.  I want an unrefrigerated air at night through windows screened in rusty mesh.  Screens whose only information is the metallic tinge of iron, the sough of wind, the calls of sleepy birds and waking insects— sensual knowledge without guile or goal.

Barring these fantasies of lost time, alive now only in memory, I want to find myself at home in this now — in whatever place and moment I find myself — not pulled into puzzling out how history has led us to the Greek financial crisis.  Or worrying about how the fear and frustration of people caught in poverty or seduced by their private screens morph into racial and ethnic hatreds.  Beamed from the ubiquitous sources, each action and moment and decision of our mutual lives condemns me.  I am part of an inextricable tangle of cause and effect too large to comprehend except piecemeal.  I know too much and not enough.  Burning coal and traveling automobiles, even cattle breaking wind (and a  myriad of other variables I cannot keep hold of) determine there will be torrential rains one region, drought in another.  I am an accomplice to outcomes I cannot fully foresee or prevent — an insoluble part of universal conundrums.

I can find respite, though, if I am lucky or mindful enough, in the white expanse of silence that is the blank page.  No matter how long it has been since I wrote last, the page waits for my pen to trace a way through the briar patch of the day’s thoughts and facts and in the process draw a clearer outline of what has troubled me.  In the act of writing I turn the huge helplessness that oppresses me into squiggles of ink that flow into letters, words, sentences, paragraphs to contain and clarify it.  This respite waits not just for those who call themselves writers, but for anyone willing to sit down and shape their thoughts on a page.

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Finding words for what looms around us, it is possible to disperse its shadow, to be calmed by the rhythm of breath as it rises, steady and welcoming.  Here is the hospitality we crave.  The practice of reflective writing invites each of us to be the honored guest in her life.  Words, as they unfold across the page, have the power to name what feels wrong around us and — most importantly — to remind us of all we cherish.  This kind of writing rights the world, welcoming us home.

SURPRISE!

Public Art in Holden

On a recent trip to the beach, I hadn’t expected to run across a local artist’s painting decorating a utility box. The combination of playfully-rendered produce and a strong beach palette made this little piece of public art a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been thinking about surprise this summer as I tread the much-loved path of the unsurprising: Sunday morning trips to Farmers’ Market, homemade applesauce cooling in the fridge, a vase of balloon flower, gooseneck and bee balm on the kitchen table, the memory of firework chrysanthemums splayed across the night sky.

The word “surprise” was mentioned often during the Carnegie Center’s 2015 Books-in-Progress conference by presenters as well as a panel of agents and publishers. This was not surprise of the “I never saw that coming” variety. That kind of unexpected turn of events can rupture the contract between writer and reader.

This was about surprise on a micro-level. This is about the writer who takes the time to search for new images, new objects, fresh dialog, original names for characters, new occupations and activities for those characters, new situations.

For example, presenter A.J. Verdelle, a master of revision, frequently mentioned the need to search for vigorous verbs. Think about the work done by a verb like “wobbles” or “muddles.” These choices conjure action without the need for embellishing adverbs. They surprise us with their unanticipated precision. As Verdelle says, “If you can’t get jazzed up by verbs, you probably aren’t going to make it in this business.”

Another opportunity for surprise can occur when the writer creates a simile from the fictional materials on the page instead of resorting to a cliché pulled from a catalog of similes, tried and true.

According to Verdelle, list-making is also an exercise that can lead a writer toward creating surprise. List-making delays the brain from selecting an easy or obvious choice and trains it to the habit of generating options. I’ve previously written about the value of list-making as a revision strategy. Verdelle suggests picking an object, then listing all the things you could do with it until you come up with something surprising.

She reminded conference-goers of the monstrous surprise of the stewing bunny in the movie Fatal Attraction. She speculates that the scene might have been inspired when the script writers said, “Okay, we gave the kid a pet bunny. What else could we do with that detail? Let’s make a list.”

Creativity is often described as divergent thinking, the ability to generate options. Surprise helps the writer produce something fresh for the reader, leading us to praise a written work as being creative.

How do you ensure that you surprise the reader?

Photo Credit: “These Peppers Are Still Hot Stuff” by Mary Paulsen. Photo by Jan Isenhour

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Cinderella: Who is your fairy godmother?

imagesWhen Gail asked, what would your fairy godmother give you? I had many quick answers: a giant home library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, preferably in a sprawling old Victorian home with wood floors, plaster walls, and a fireplace. A giant writing desk made of good old wood. Windows that opened onto mature trees and flower gardens, while tea olives sent sweet fragrance in to me as I wrote. Of course, tea olives aside, what I was imagining was something less spectacular than Edith Wharton’s mansion, The Mount, but something grander than Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House. That would be the idealized setting I’d ask the fairy godmother to confer on me.

That place has little to do with the gift that would mean more to my writing career: a situation where I could write first and foremost, and then do other paid work and family tasks, if at all, after I’d expended my best energy on shaping a new, yes, a brand-new essay or story that had never been written before. That gift, fairy godmother, would be the best.

In the Cinderella story, the fairy godmother appears without a request from the working woman. Poor Cinderella has been toiling, unappreciated, beset by demanding family members to perform unrewarding and relentless repetitive labors. Her lot is miserable, yet she sings and is cheerful. Perhaps Cinderella is a writer. If so, then I see her story in a slightly different light.

The fairy godmother is the agent who plucks the good work the under-appreciated Cinderella has been producing and places it in the public eye where its beauty and worth is appreciated. The prince is the publisher that swoops in to rescue/publish the Cinderwriter; they “marry” and live happily ever after.

So maybe the fairy godmother I want is an agent who can make this magic happen, the agent who recognizes the work and acts to make sure the writer lives happily ever in a publishing house, the agent who is interested in the writer’s entire career, rather than in a single big dance.

While my fantasy of the Victorian house and library is true, it’s the practical agency that I’d really ask for from a fairy godmother. Aren’t we all hoping for that magic wand?

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