Heart Stone Feathers

Word Nerd – Feather Finder – Heart Stone Hunter – Synchronicity Searcher Winging It While Lovingly Writing Through Life

Category: Books

Strunk and White…Meet Klinkenborg

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(If you’re short on time, the condensed version of this post (inspired by Verlyn Klinkenborg) is this: If you’re a writer or know someone who is…Buy. This. Book.)

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As I mentioned in my last post, “focus” is the word I’ve chosen to incorporate into my life this year. So far, a substantial part of that focus has been aimed inwards on my writing. It’s been a process that’s involved a lot of reading about writing.

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “Several Short Sentences About Writing” was just one book among several that I ordered a few weeks ago. Although the title didn’t impress me (nor the cover, as shown above), the book itself ended up being 204 pages of what I believe could become a classic – much like Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” and Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”

However, because on the unusual way it’s written – poetically short sentences and a lack of “true” paragraphs – it’s a book people will probably either love or hate. Anyone who’s considering buying it should spend a few minutes reading the available pages for preview on Amazon to decide if it’s something they’d enjoy.

While discussing this book with three of my closest writing friends, I mentioned how the straightforward yet revolutionary ideas Klinkenborg presented completely challenged the way I was taught to write (as I think many people were) and gave me reason to pause, over and over again. It was Paul Gilmore’s Amazon review that actually summarized my thoughts best though. In it, he wrote, “I have a tendency to write in the manner of positively passionate purple prose that is overtly pulchritudinous in written and verbal construct and delivery. This book helped to save my life from choking on my own words.” While I’ve managed to edit several hundred words from this post (I realize how difficult that might be to believe), it’s obvious that I’m still slightly allergic to the use of short sentences.

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This book isn’t just about brevity though. Klinkenborg poetically discusses what he considers to be the harmful writing methods we were taught in school – arguing, demonstrating, drafting, outlining, persuading, reciting, reiterating, transitioning – and how such a focus leads us to get hung up on the concepts of authority, chronology, discipline, flow, genre, inspiration, logic, order, proof, sincerity, style, voice, and the dreaded writer’s block. Instead, he encourages writers to imagine, listen, name, notice, testify, and think and to focus on the importance of clarity, directness, implication, literalness, patience, presence, revision, rhythm, silence, simplicity, space, and variation.

He also eloquently addresses the all-important relationship between the writer and the reader, as well as various writer’s fears including (but not limited to): has “it” been said before; what if I don’t immediately write down every good sentence I create; if I am my story, where do I get another one; and how much do I have to explain to the reader. As if that wasn’t enough, the last 54 pages are filled with sample sentences and passages to practice reviewing and revising, along with more of Klinkenborg’s helpful insight.

While that might be the succinct synopsis, it doesn’t do justice to what Klinkenborg manages to accomplish in this book. Below are just a few examples (with the writing style kept intact) of what awaits you between the covers. I truly hope they entice you to find a spot on your bookshelf for this inspiring work of written art.

“You’re holding an audition.
Many sentences will try out.
One gets the part.
You’ll recognize it less from the character of the
sentence itself
than from the promise it contains – promise for the
sentences to come.”

“Every word is optional until it proves to be essential…
Every sentence is optional until it proves otherwise.”

“Every piece is an ecosystem of words and structures
and rhythms…
Suddenly you’re looking at [your sentences’] bones and muscles,
the way they’re joined and the kinetics of their
movement.”

“Late in the paragraph you prepare for the transition to
the next paragraph –
The great leap over the void, across that yawning
indentation.
You were taught the art of the flying trapeze,
But not how to write.”

“The writer’s world is full of parallel universes.
You discover, word by word, the one you discover.
Ten minutes later – another hour of thought – and you
would have found your way into a different universe.
The piece is permeable to the world around it.
It’s responsive to time itself, to the very hour of its creation.
This is an immensely freeing thing to understand.”

“…remember that your sentences don’t
acquire their final inertia
Until you release them”

“Don’t preconceive the reader’s limitations.
They’ll become your own.”

“And what happens if you trust the reader?
All the devices of distrust fall away,
The pretense of logic, the obsession with transition,
The creeping, incremental movement of sentences,
Sentences stepping on each other’s heels…
You converse, in a sense, with the voice on the other
side of the ink.”

“You be the narrator.
Let us be the readers.
You’ll discover that being the narrator is not the same as being yourself.
It’s a role, and a dramatic one.
Absorb it and inhabit it.”

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The Rookie Poet’s Review of Anis Mojgani’s “The Feather Room”

The Feather Room Book

There is no way for me to hide the fact that I am a rookie when it comes to reading, as well as to writing, poetry. To be honest, had it not been for Patti Digh’s online VerbTribe writing classes that I happily submerged myself in these past few months, I’m certain I wouldn’t even be able to claim the title of rookie.

It’s really not due to a lack of appreciation for poetry, nor a disinterest in it, that I’ve shied away from it for four-and-a-half decades. I simply find it intimidating. Especially when it comes to reading comprehension.

I unexpectedly came face-to-face with that fear on Day 2 of my first VerbTribe class. One of our assignments for the day was to read, as well as to rewrite in longhand, Mark Doty’s “Robert Harms Paints the Surface of Little Fresh Pond.” For those who are unfamiliar with the poem, it reads as follows.

Surface the action of the day,
a means of tracing the dynamic,
so that a jitter of blue’s
sparked by little coals,
sun a glimmer
of the day’s intent. He knows
to trace an alphabet written on water
is to surface the action of the day,
a way of proceeding,
entering into the never-
to-be repeated,
a way of reading
a nearly infinite variety of gestures
legible only to one versed
in surface, the action of the day.
When my eye nearly failed –
the frail foil-back torn,
wild profusion of smoke-curls,
what I saw was just this:
what he sees on and in water,
by his hand
the action of surface notated,
the rhythm of things
discerned and ridden.

As the final part of our assignment, we were asked to answer the question, “What stood out for you in this exercise?” My reply, which in hindsight now sounds pathetically whining, was at least candid.

“Being honest here…no matter how many times I read this, I kept hearing my own personal Negative Nelly whispering in my ear, “You SUCK at stuff like this!” This one truly had my head spinning, even AFTER I rewrote it in longhand. Some of the phrases just left me wondering what he was trying to convey. I was so desperate to figure it out that I Googled it. I found a video of a guy reading it…THAT didn’t help. Then I actually found Mark Doty’s blog that had a post about when he went to an art gallery show that featured work by Robert Harms. Then – and only then – did I “get it.” Or at least I then understood half of what he wrote. Instead of telling myself I can never be a decent writer unless I can understand ALL forms of writing, I’m just going to cut myself some slack and assume that there are others out there that don’t always “get” every word found in works like this. (…slinking off to the back of the class now, feeling somewhat inadequate…)”

Patti, in her infinite teaching wisdom (and concise writing style), simply replied, “I wonder what would happen if there were no right answer.” Well DAMN! What if? That was quite a foreign concept for a perfectionistic, control-freak Virgo such as myself, but there really was no way for me to argue with it. Touché! One writing (and reading) dragon slain on Day 2!

Just a few days later, I surprised myself by purchasing several “generic” and beginner’s level poetry books at a local library sale. My husband almost fainted when he saw them, as he knew I was venturing into a land I had long avoided. Feeling more comfortable after greedily ingesting verse after verse, I decided to go all out and try my hand at deciphering Anis Mojgani’s, The Feather Room.

The only reason I use the term decipher is that, even when Mojgani himself – an international award-winning poet, perhaps best known for his poetry slam presentations (you can view one of his readings below) – is asked to classify his genre of poetry with an original name, his reply is simply, “I wouldn’t want to define a specific genre for this. I just write poems.”

The summary for The Feather Room refers to it as being “storytelling in poetic form while traveling farther down the path of magic realism.” I’m torn between calling it a verse novel or a collection of nearly-narrative poems. Whatever it is, it truly is mind-expanding. Or at least it was for me.

The book is broken into three sections, based on the opening prose that describes three “off limit” rooms a young man ventures into. The first room features a yellow wooden door and a young girl sitting amongst a pile of bicycle parts; a room depicting where the man once was and the girl someone he loved. The second room has a red stone door and a crying elderly man who is trying to encourage a plethora of featherless, screeching birds to leave via an open window. This room symbolizes where the young man currently is, as well as sadness he is “holding on to something long gone and broke.” A blue glass door protects the final room – one simply overflowing with feathers and representative of where the man is going.

I would be lying if I said I understood and liked every single one of the sixty-nine poems in this book, the longest comprising nine pages and the shortest a mere eleven words. In fact, some of the titles even left me slightly confused. Such was definitely the case with “Call it magic call it fish eye call it fish lung call you magic pocket of science.” Kudos for such a creative title though!

Although I wasn’t able to follow every single step along the journey, the path kept beckoning me to continue onwards with luscious lines like those below. (Please forgive me if “luscious” is an inappropriate term to describe poetry – I tried to warn you that I was at the beginning of the learning curve.)

“…the geese…balancing the moon on their backs.”

“…ceiling fans worshipping my skin…”

“Everything has a ghost. The measuring cups my mama used.”

“…the telephone poles do not speak as loudly as they once did.”

“This is what the walls taste like. Cucumbers sliced and salted. Dill growing in the window. The smell of coffee. Lick the wall.”

“March is a long month…Sometimes it stretches through the following winters.”

Would I recommend this book to other rookie poets? I actually would. It’s not overloaded with unfamiliar words or difficult rhythms; it’s simply one that needs to be read slowly – savoring every word to understand its significance to the overall story. I guess that could be said for most poems though.

I personally will gladly be revisiting The Feather Room – perhaps quite often. I have a feeling I’ll discover something new each time. To me, that’s the truest definition of quality poetry. But who am I to say? I’m still just a rookie working on obtaining my junior appreciation status. For today, that’s good enough, especially considering how far I’ve come in just the last few months.

And now I’d love to know…who or what are some of your favorite poets or poems? This newbie would really appreciate any and all suggestions of where to venture next on this odyssey.

Addendum: For those who might be interested, Anis Mojgani’s next book, Songs From Under the River: Early and New Work, is due to be released on March 15, 2013. I foresee it gracing my shelves some day soon thereafter.

No Longer Between Books

Well-loved independent book store unexpectedly closing in Delaware. (Photo taken by Anita Gail)

Well-loved independent book store unexpectedly closing in Delaware. (Photo taken by Anita Gail)

How is it possible to feel such overwhelming guilt for the closing of a bookstore in Claymont, Delaware – one whose shelves I have never even had the privilege of browsing and that is located more than four hours from my home? I actually would have been oblivious to the sad news had my dear friend Anita not posted it on her Facebook page (along with the above photo that she took of the store’s facade and graciously allowed me to use here). Thank you Anita and thank you Facebook….I think.

Between Books, one of the few remaining independently owned bookstores in Delaware, was happily closing in on its thirty-third anniversary. On February 22nd, a few weeks shy of reaching such a milestone, shop owner Greg Schaeur posted what I can only imagine was a very unexpected message on the store’s website. Short – but far from sweet – it simply read, “I have written and rewritten this a million times in my head over the last few days. Words fail me. It is with a heavy heart that I must announce Between Books Going Out of Business sale will begin Saturday, February 23rd. We have lost our lease. More information soon. Please spread the word.” What had been a “closing in” on a joyous event is now a “closing” of the worst kind.

I don’t pretend to have any idea why – after having been in its current location for more than 25 years – the store has lost its lease. I don’t really want to even speculate on the reason. Regardless if it’s financial, personal, or something else, the end result is that the world has one less option when it comes to connecting “hands on” with books.

“Oh well,” some might say. “One less store – the world will go on without it.” Yes – yes it will. But at what price? Chris Van Trump, an “on and off” employee of Between Books since 1997, clarified the answer to that question so much more eloquently than I ever could in his February 23rd blog post entitled, “Do Not Go Gentle.”

“This place, this sanctuary, is fading from the world, and we are all poorer for its passing. All the more so because it is not alone in this fate.

Places like this used to be common, the small businesses that formed the beating heart of the communities that accumulated around them like layers of pearl, slowly growing year by year into lustrous jewels beyond price.

We’ve lost that. We threw it away, in fact, sacrificing community on the altar of savings, trading knowledge for selection, and now we’re left with the rotting carcasses of the warehouse stores, themselves devoured in turn by a flagging economy and an ascendent internet.”

One doesn’t need to be a past or present employee to feel the loss though. The Delaware Liberal’s commentary about the closing got right to the point with its opening remarks of, “This is depressing. Beyond depressing, really.”

A Google search quickly revealed to me how much of a jewel Between Books has become to its community. Without fail, I always expect to see some form of negative review about every “business” I research, whether it’s a restaurant, a doctor, a bookstore, or a mere book review. Such was definitely NOT the case for Between Books. I literally found NONE.

A mere sample of what I did find includes a Yelp review proclaiming, “This bookshop isn’t a fancy Borders or Barnes and Noble type place with fancy wood floors and cappuccino…it’s the type of place where you can get lost in the stacks and spend a whole day browsing and chatting with others. You feel totally welcome when you’re there.” Praises on the Indie Bound website were just as complimentary “…it’s run by people who aren’t like the creatures you’ll find in a Borders. They *know* things. Arcane things. They’ve met authors you’ve heard rumored to exist in some alternate universe. They celebrate new books with writers by putting their book covers on a cake. They throw a party. And their audience is as diverse as the store itself. From children to old crazies like me. This is the store you go into and come out with much of your well-earned boodle turned alchemically into reading material. The draw is unavoidable.”

Even a cartoon drawn to celebrate Between Books’ thirtieth anniversary pays homage to the fact that it was “the” place to be, as far back as the 1970’s and especially on “new comics Thursday.”

Cartoon created for Between Books' 30th anniversary. (Artwork by Steve Ressel)

Cartoon created for Between Books’ 30th anniversary. (Artwork by Steve Ressel)

Back to my original question though – why do I personally feel guilty, as if I was somehow partly responsible for this store’s demise? For far too long now, I must confess that my annual book budget has been spent at local library sales (which I have justified as helping them out, as well as my own personal expense account) and at online sites, primarily Amazon. Truth be told, my latest Amazon book order JUST arrived yesterday; a writing book for myself and a golf techniques one for my husband.

This past Christmas, I actually chose a book I wanted to share with a dozen new friends I met in an online writing course. Unable to purchase it at a local Barnes and Noble – unless I was willing to pay an inordinate amount for shipping – I got desperate. I not only resorted to buying all the copies I could from an Amazon “dealer,” but I (gulp) ordered the last few copies through Wal-Mart. Not my proudest moment.

I am someone who has loudly bemoaned the rise of ebooks at what I believe is at the expense of “real” books. I am also someone who has chanted the mantra for many years to support local small businesses (including those who grow much of my food). That being the case, I simply can’t fathom WHY those beliefs have translated into my now not being able to remember the last time I set foot in an independently owned local bookstore. And yes – there are a number of great ones to choose from. The fact that I am also a writer as well as a local business owner makes the hypocrisy of my actions that much worse. I truly feel so very shameful.

Chris Van Trump’s blog post was the wake-up call I needed. Even though he feels as if the world has ended, I am grateful that he also has hope. “Hope that the small business will see a resurgence in an age where people have begun to realize what they’ve lost, where that intimate relationship between retailer and consumer means more than a handful of shallow reviews from strangers on the web or a massive box full of things that nobody needs.” Per his call to action, I will indeed “rage, before [I] wake up and realize what [I’ve] lost.”

In what might be described as a haunting precursor to this entire story, Greg Schauer was actually quoted in an August, 2011 article about how Delaware’s independent bookstores were fighting to survive, even as the local Borders was going out of business. He commented how, “I feel bad for the people who are losing their jobs, but I watched so many of my friends lose their businesses. I survived the devastation Borders brought to Delaware bookstores when they moved in to the state and will outlive them.” He did indeed outlive them, but perhaps not as long as he imagined he would.

Will he return after this devastation? Only time will tell. Who knows – it’s possible that the final chapter of this story has yet to be written. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for a sequel, as well as hoping for a happy ending.

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