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What We’re Reading: Winter Morning Walks

2011 December 8
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What We're Reading

Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison by Ted Kooser. Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000.

Winter is upon us, and while any sensible person would be huddled over hot beverages indoors during winter in Minnesota, I love taking walks. I especially enjoy walks during the quietest times of day: in the morning or on weekend nights right before dusk. The cold quiets everything, and I’m left to my own thoughts. Very fittingly, I was given this Kooser collection by my aunt and uncle a while back, and found it inspiring (although Ted Kooser is one of my favorite poets already, so it wasn’t a challenge to find inspiration). This is a collection of poems that Kooser wrote while walking in early dawn during his recovery from cancer in the winter of 1998. He had lost hope on poetry for a short while, but these daily poems, which he sent to his friend Jim Harrison on postcards, pulled him back into the world of writing.

The poems are filled with a sense of waiting, and, not surprisingly, of being alone, as Kooser often was when writing these poems. The collection is organized and titled by month and day, a progression through winter. All the poems, except the first, start out with a single line at the top. The single beginning line places the reader in the moment: “Clouds to the west, clear in the east” or “Clear and still, a heavy frost.” I’m not sure this is effective as the entry into every poem, and oftentimes leaves the feeling of the poem being an unfinished draft. (If only my unfinished poems were this polished…)

One of the poems where this does work, however, starts with “New snow.” (“December 7”). In it, the speaker happens upon tracks in the new snow that suggests a hunter killed a deer out of season. The speaker creates a scene from the left-behind clues in the new snow (“it” in this excerpt being the deer):

[…] he lifted it into a pickup,
stomped the snow from his boots,
took a pee and lit a smoke,
threw down the match and drove off
thinking that nobody
would ever know the difference.

And maybe it’s just me, but these poems do seem more unpolished than his other published work. Yet at the same time, they seem more exploratory in their curious nature, a quiet, open musing shared with a friend. It’s that trait that endears these poems to me, where perhaps Kooser is letting us see his more vulnerable work, a glimpse into the scaffolding of his pristine poet-laureate-worthy work. Even in the poems where his best-known style is apparent, he slips in a little unexpected pondering, like the slightly surreal personification in this poem:

November 9

Rainy and cold.


The sky hangs thin and wet on its clothesline.

A deer of gray vapor steps through the foreground,
under the dripping, lichen-rusted trees.

Halfway across the next field,
the distance (or can that be the future?)
is sealed up in tin like an old barn.

Have you ever written poems or prose through correspondence to a friend? What are your daily writing habits?

What We’re Reading: Views from the Loft

2011 July 7
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Views from the Loft: A Portable Writer’s Workshop is a book that every writer should own. Published by Milkweed Editions, and edited by their publisher, Daniel Slager, it’s an anthology on the craft of writing featuring writers, teachers, and editors who have ties to The Loft Literary Center. It crams all the knowledge gleaned from workshops and classrooms into one slick volume. The book has the necessary umph behind it from these two powerhouse literary organizations to be able to bring in great writers and loads of insightful material. Slager’s introduction is a loving tribute to the Open Book building which Milkweed Editions, The Loft Literary Center, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) call home. I also love this building, having spent much time there as a past intern at Milkweed, a longtime fan of MCBA, and a frequenter of the café. Slager walks the reader through the building and the different organizations on each floor, which, paired with architectural and design elements, create the feeling of walking through the process of book creation. The Gail See staircase takes its design inspiration from the pages of a book, the MCBA gives the history of book and print making, the Loft fosters writers of all types, and Milkweed edits and publishes great contemporary titles.

The essays are chock full of conventional writerly wisdom, and some unconventional gems, too. It also includes interviews with writers, such as Deborah Kennan, Ted Kooser, Michael Cunningham, and more. The writers sometimes contradict each other, and other times echo each other’s sentiments, thus creating a diverse dialogue with each other throughout the book. Somewhere in all of that,  you can find your own truth as a writer.

One of my favorite essays: “Tesoros” by Sandra Benítez.

Writerly advice:

“Your best ideas come while you are actually writing” —Larry Sutin in the essay “Working from Experience.”

“An essay that speaks with great clarity is one thing. An essay that speaks with great certainty is another. The former I trust.”  —Jim Moore in “Twenty-five in an Infinite Series of Numbers.”

What sources of advice, inspiration, and guidance do you turn to as a writer? Have you had any experiences at the Loft Literary Center, or a similar classroom/workshop environment that was especially productive?


What We’re Reading: Paul Harding, et al

2011 March 10

Fiction: Tinkers by Paul Harding, published by Bellevue Literary Press. The book won the Pulitzer, so there’s really no arguing. The quiet novel starts with an old man, a clock repairer, on his deathbed. What won me over was the beautifully crafted journey of the man going back through his consciousness and memories, through time and his past joys and hardships, to gain a simple, yet heartbreaking truth of the world. A great book for us Minnesotans contemplating all things dark and heartwarming during this long, long winter.

Blog: Is that funny? by Zeichen Press…and yes, yes it is. The sisters-in-law letterpress duo is made up of Jen Shea and Fran Shea. The way they tell it, Fran does all the talking, and Jen does all the work. While we’re partial to sisterly letterpress duos, we really just follow this blog because it’s hilarious. I mean, a letterpress blog that elicits giggles, sassy remarks, and dirty humor? Really, who wouldn’t love it?

Poetry selection: “Old Lilacs” by the past Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning Ted Kooser, in his collection Delights and Shadows published by Copper Canyon Press. In honor of the coming spring…

Old Lilacs

Through early April cold,
these thin gray horses
have come near the house
as to a fence, and lean there
hungry for summer,
nodding their heads
with a nickering of twigs.

Their long legs are dusty
from standing for months
in winter’s stall, and their eyes
are like a cloudy sky
seen through bare branches.

They are waiting for May
to come up from the barn
with her overalls pockets
stuffed with the fodder
of green. In a month
they will be slow and heavy,
their little snorts so sweet
you’ll want to stand
among them, breathing.