Lit Bit: Occasional Poems

I am not a big fan of writing poems for certain occasions. I’d say I absorbed this disdain from my poetry professor at New College, but my dislike predates my college career, having instead been inspired by the greeting card industry and its rigid meter and forced rhymes. Nothing sounds so stilted as the rhyming congratulations expressed in a greeting card. Nothing sounds so forced as condolences inked on paperboard.

That’s why, when I sat down to try to write poems about the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year, I hemmed and hawed, but in the end I felt the urge to do better. To roll up my sleeves, to hunker down, and to break all the expectations. Only, it’s not so easy as that.

Limits can be freeing. A theme can be helpful. But one thing I’ve noted in writing poetry for an occasion is that it’s damned hard to make it good. Nigh impossible. I kept trying to capture summer, a spirit of place, comparing it to seasons down south on the other side of the equator, marry the theme of alienation from inhabited space due to the impetus of cultural notions and… well, that’s a big abstract concept. So I threw some concrete at it.

But you can’t just throw any concrete at it. It has to be the right concrete. Even eschewing Rhyme and Meter (caps, of course, and seriously, who do those guys think they are?), finding the right concrete is… well, I mean, think of it this way: you’re out looking for a book. A book about unicorns. It has to be fiction, it has to be a novel, and it has to be from after 1963. But that’s not all. It has to have a certain decorum, can’t include a wizard, and needs to contain the phrase, “but moonlight is the light for liars,” as well as a certain sad edge to the happy parts. It gets a bit ridiculous. That’s what writing an occasional poem is like.

As it turns out, I threw the wrong concrete.

When I write occasional poems, it’s a lot like putting the cart before the horse. I have an outcome in mind, when usually, the way I write a poem is to write until I have a shape, and then work at that shape. I find themes in the words, rather than choosing the words to fit a theme. Sometimes I don’t even know what a poem is about until after it’s done. Then I make a few passes with a plane to get it down to just that shape, the one I’d seen suggested. Only then will I even consider the thought that it might be nearing complete.

In the end, I finished three Pagan poems. Only three. Out of eight. So if ever I finally release that chapbook, you’ll know the real reason that section is titled “Pretending to Be Pagan: Poems for 3/8 of the Year.”

Of the Rites of the Bean

That’s college. Down to the lounge to the only oven open to a hundred students, and there is my one lonesome burner free. I am smart enough for an honors school, but not smart enough to get a bag to carry the burr grinder, the whole bean coffee, the moka pot, and my spoons. I’m too bleary for it to matter. That is what I say, though the real reason is that it isn’t part of the ritual. You have to be careful what you do, lest it become part of the ritual. That’s true of anything. That’s how hard cider and chocolate became a healthy breakfast, and why I light candles for Elsa every January 3rd.

There is a meditation in balancing my items in arms too small to hold them all, and tottering down the concrete stairs barefoot every morning. There is something entirely present here now in depressing the door handle with an ass cheek, and leaning the steel door inward.

I unpack on a small section of counter that I have to clear with a knee. It’s mostly hippie food grown over with mold, stacked on paper plates.

I refuse to make my coffee in an unclean kitchen, so all the food has to be air lifted into the trash. I have to run up to my room on deer’s feet to grab a rag for the counter. No one ever leaves cleaning supplies in the lounge.

Once the sweep of my arm and the smell of the soap has almost made the space usable, the real ritual begins. I set the grinder finest. Three scoops of beans once ground will fill the middle chamber. Three scoops a day sustains me.

I have forgotten my espresso cups. Another trip, bird’s feet on tile, and up to rummage and back flying wings down to my lonely coffee tools. There is a hippie at them, diaphanous skirt swaying under the AC vent, her nose in my beans.

“Hey!” I snap.

“It’s in the lounge,” she says.

“Because I brought it here to make.” These turf wars are never fun.

“Geeze, you don’t have to be so mean.”

I brush her aside, and fill the lower chamber with tap water. It is pure shame that fills me. Tap water is unworthy of my beans, but it’s what I have. It will have to do. And there is the ritual to mind. It would not do to change it.

The burner lights, coil rising to glow one shade at a time. I have but to screw the upper chamber in place, and place the pot on stove, step back and wait.

Books are good for this, but they are not part of the ritual. I watch my pot boil. It is not like grass or paint, because there are tiny changes to note.

First, the pot reflects the glow of the coil. Second, there is a sound that steam pressure makes. I cannot tell you what that sound is. You must hear it for yourself. Third, the bubble comes. It is glorious. It’s like the rumble of a train from far away. It’s like the purr of a cat when your head rests on its belly.

When this stops, the next phase of the ritual begins. You need a potholder, or your hand may burn. There is never a potholder in the lounge. There are sometimes dish towels that smell rank, and sometimes a hippie’s shirt discarded on the floor. The ritual calls for one of these in a potholder’s place.

It must be an espresso cup. It must have a saucer. One must pour slowly enough to enjoy the beauty of the crema that pours out; even stove-top espresso has crema.

Here is where the ritual may change. It all comes down to this deciding moment. Now with the coffee made, I can do many things. Today, I will pile my supplies on the lounge counter and walk slowly back up to my room to stand on my dorm’s double balcony overlooking the volley ball net, the swing set, and underbrush and live oaks. I will stand in the gold morning listening to wind chimes and sip my espresso standing. Tomorrow, I may sit on the lounge floor with Scrabble tiles strewn about connecting archaic cuss words, or maybe outside under the bottle brush, my back bark abraded. But for today, this. Gold is out of the ordinary enough.

Lit Bit: Sick Edition

I had a realization today. This is a rather foolish realization, a dull and mundane realization: it is very hard to write, or do any creative work, for that matter, when it feels as though you’ve been hit by a bus. Flus are not conducive to productivity. This is true also of hunger, but oddly not always of sleep deprivation.

Since I am still battling a flu, this is all I have to say on the matter.

What Makes Your Garden Grow?

When I talk about gardening, there seems to be a disconnect between me and the person listening. Maybe I’m the weird one (in fact I’d lay money on that), but when I think of “gardening” the last things I think about are pretty flowers. For me, gardening as all about the food. Eatables. Sustainability. And if I grow roses, you can bet I’m planning on putting them in tea and salads.

When I talk to other people about my passion, the first thing that seems to come to their minds is chrysanthemums and azaleas and prize winning birds-of-paradise. And so they launch into talks of their queen palms, landscaping, and hibiscus. To which I reply, “Mmmm, hibiscus is tasty! Have you ever made syrup from the calyx?” This ends the conversation. I seem to forget that people grow plants for purposes other than food. I guess that’s a personal failing.

I wonder about this. What does it say that the only conceivable idea of gardening for some includes primarily concerns for the aesthetic, and for me, primarily the practical? Okay, and the tasty. I’d be lying if I said I only grow nutrient-rich, high caloric density foods. I grow things I like to eat. I grow things which make my taste buds dance, and my bowels tremor: ghost peppers. Habaneros. Their sister, the Scotch Bonnet. Thai poinsettia peppers. I like it hot.

But how did the idea of growing things get separated into two so vastly different categories? How is it that when I say the word “garden” it means something entirely different to my grandmother and my peers? It makes it interesting when I speak to the local Master Gardeners. Most know their native plants inside and out, and many focus on ornamentals. But when I ask about any eatable other than oranges and tomatoes, they seem to be stumped, and I get referred yet again to the extension service website. What is the edible gardener to do? Aside from purchasing an exorbitantly priced copy of Tom MacCubbin’s now out-of-print book.

Lit Bit: Writing in Public

Some writers will tell you that you should never ever write in a public space. That it’s not conducive to getting work done. That if you write in public, you’re just in love with the idea of being a writer and you want people to notice you sitting there, writing. I call bullshit.

Everyone has a different experience of writing. While some may really benefit from a nice quiet room with no extra sound, no thrum of traffic, no conversations in the background, that kind of silence drives me up a wall. I hate it. I’m a city creature, after all, and the cry of sirens in the night is my lullaby. Quiet is a hindrance to my words, then. There’s also the fact that when I hunker down in a public place, I don’t dick around on the internet like I do in private. My very environment becomes a tool for productivity.

That said, libraries work a bit for me, but their silence is foreboding. The people coming and going don’t take time to bother me, and I love how no one ever expects you to interact. They leave you to sit and write. But you can hear the clock tick itself off the wall. It’s almost painful. Then again, you’re writing on top of a rich book vein, just waiting for you to mine it. There are trade offs.

Cafés are another matter. Coffee is the writer’s friend. There are so many comings and goings. At least, there are during the lunch hour. Here again, no one expects you to interact, or at least they don’t if it’s an American café. But cafés are where writers are supposed to write, and I can almost feel that accusation of wanting to be seen writing anthropomorphizing itself, and sticking me with little guilt pins. Then there’s the peril of jelly splotches. Or the peril of the traffic die-down.

Now, bars are an interesting fish. A good bar, a well-patronized bar, has a liveliness that sings. It hums with activity. The noise is a constant energetic roar, the lights are low, and it’s always easy to bum a light. It’s not true for everyone, but it’s just the place for me to hunker down, sink into the sound and let my pencil walk around its blue-ruled yard. Except…

This also seems to be a rule for bars: anything you do, anything at all, people seem to take as an invitation to talk. Bury yourself in a beer and misery? “Hey, you here by yourself?” Rock out to the band? “Hey, you come here often?” Bend down to tie your shoelace? “Hey, sorry about slapping you like that, but your ass was just asking for it.” Order a hard cider? “Hey, is that girl beer or something? Mind if I get you something stronger?” Whip out your pencil and notebook? “Hey, what are you writing?” When you don’t answer, when you tell them, “Hey, look, I’m busy,” they get grabby.

But for this, the atmosphere would be perfect. It’s a rather large “but” to overcome; it’s awfully hard to write when someone else’s hand has snatched your pencil away, and they’re physically blocking a hasty retreat to the women’s restroom. Now, your mileage on this may vary. Being female-bodied and obviously en-titted, I think my experience might be a bit different from a guy’s. From observation, it seems men are more often left to their own devices in bars. If you are male, cis or trans or simply appear so in drag, and wish to try it out and tell me of it, I’d love an account. That is, if you, like me, need noise to narrow your focus and fiddle with lit.

So what is a writing person to do? As I scribble this, I am sitting at a café, sipping coffee, hiding in a corner, and trying to be unobtrusive. I feel like a cliché. It’s quiet here, and the movie playing in the main room (Superman) clashes with the Golden Earring song whispering from the radio. Only the owner is conversing. It leaves me antsy. But this is what I have to work with, and unless I can come up with better strategies for writing in bars, my options for public scribbling are limited.


I am not a cooping-up creature. I love the city. I love the streets and alleys and the stretch of tall buildings, the late night places, the light spilling at odd angles across sidewalks, the feeling of asphalt under my feet.

I do not love so very little space to garden. I have a balcony full of plants right now, all constrained in pots, and wanting room to unfurl. Maybe some deeper troughs for hardier roots.

And that’s what I miss most about Port Charlotte, though I never thought I’d say it: a yard with a garden. My okra with buttermilk blooms and raisin tinted middles. My peppers popping capsaicin red under the autumn sun. My pomegranate’s dragon-tongued blossoms shedding petals, then rounding, rounding into heavy fruit.

I thought in moving to Miami, I had to trade all of that to have a city. It was the one thing I was reluctant to give up, but it was worth it to be in a place that didn’t fall asleep before eight, that felt like it breathed deep breaths before dancing through the night in a swirl of sodium arc orange and neon glow. A place all food and sound and bodies and thrum. It was a welcome trade, and expected loss. I weighed it carefully when I made my choice.

And then I met Kit and Mouse. They were coworkers in the electronics store, lived in Fort Lauderdale, and owned a beautiful little house with walls painted teal and green apple and sage, with a yard full of bees. You know: the ill-mowed scraggle that cradles little white wildflowers of a million sorts, a secret feast for insects on the wing. And they asked me to help with their garden.

Suddenly, I didn’t have to choose. My city-self well-fed, my night-roamer uncaged, and now my gardener girl, overalled and barefoot, had been invited out to play, too. I helped plant scallions, prepare raised vegetable beds with peat moss and compost. As Kit and Mouse expand their gardening to include an urban chicken coop, their own bees in top bar hives, more raised beds for tomatoes and eggplant and okra and squash, I’ll get to be there to help. I don’t have to trade my sanity for my green thumb.

Lit Bit: The Broke Poet

It was told to me, and I will tell it to you: there is no money in poetry.  Sure, there is a slim ray of hope that you could become Poet Laureate of the United States, or your own country if such a position is available, and if your own country is Canada or New Zealand or the UK, you’re set, but at least here in US-land, the Laureate’s stipend is only $35,000. That used to be a lot. It isn’t so very much now.

I can write a bazillion poems, and save for a few prestigious prizes, there are very few ways to get paid for my work. Most markets for poetry are non-paying markets. Where markets pay, they don’t pay much not out of cheapness, but because poetry is generally a much shorter form than prose, whether fiction or non. You’d have to do a LOT of publishing in order to pay the rent.

Then there is the notion that no one reads poetry. Or that only other poets read poetry. I know I read poetry, but I’m a poet, so I think that only supports this notion. And honestly, with the supposed shortening of the modern attention span in the days of publication by tweet, you’d think that such a short form would be more widely embraced. Maybe it is, and I just haven’t seen the actual number of subscribers to various publications.

The hard reality is, if you’re writing poetry and seeking publication, there has to be a motive other than riches behind it, because save for the likes of Billy Collins, few poets are rich or even well-fed off their words. Unless their primary body of work is in some field of prose.

The funny thing is, it’s not a deterrent to me. Poetry has an intrinsic value to me. I have to write, or my brain will flood. I will continue to enter to compete for poetry prizes, knowing full well I stand no chance of winning, but it’s more a way to feel as though I am active in the field. It is more of a means to feel that my entry fees are keeping poems in print for everyone.

Because there is no money in poetry, my reward for writing poems is… writing poems.