Take the Plunge: Some Thoughts on Poetry and the Body, or, That Is, the Brain, Which Is the Body

Adam reaches out his left hand so that he can meet the finger of the right hand of God. Adam, who leans back as if in a Dolce & Gabbana ad, though he’s absolutely naked, absolutely not advertising anything except his own physical perfection, seems a tad blasé about the whole thing. He could take it or not. He’s all body, abs and pects in perfect condition. He’s the alpha male, completely in charge and totally available.

And God reaches out from what appears to be a red cave, an enclosure, in which he’s surrounded by cherubim and seraphim. Unlike Adam, God is eager to make this happen. “Touch me,” he could be calling out. This is Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, of course. I’ve stood before it several times and I’ve seen photographs of it many, many times. You have, too, I’m sure.

Here’s the thing: the shape of that red enclosure? It’s the outline of the human brain.

When we’re born we have about 100 billion brain cells. A typical cell is capable of about 1000 connections. Right now, as you’re reading this, your brain could make a lot of connections: 1 to the 76th power of connections, that is a 1 with 76 zeros behind it!

Some of these cells bring in information from the outer world. The windshield is covered in frost, the cat peeks out from the pile of gold and brown leaves, my left big toe rubs against this shoe. And other cells send information into the outer world. Scrape with your right hand, call the cat, move your foot.

Poetry grows from the spark created when the finger of the brain touches the finger of the body.

Theodore Roethke, in his book On Poetry & Craft, tells about how the poet Carolyn Kizer noticed that the poet Louise Bogan starts many poems with a prepositional phrase. Kizer says about these prepositional openings:“You’re plunged into the middle of the poem.”

“At night the moon shakes the bright dice of the water,” begins Bogan’s poem “Elders.” “In fear of the rich mouth / I kissed the thin,” begins “The Frightened Man.”

Prepositional phrases position us in the world. “At night . . .” They clarify relationships. “Beside the pile of leaves . . .” And they answer questions. “In fear . . .”

With a few swift words, we’re plunged into the world of the poem.

To plunge   “to enter suddenly into something which surrounds one completely” that is, the poem.

I don’t want to argue here in favor of prepositions. Rather I’m in favor of plunging. Too often, young writers fail to plunge, fail to enter suddenly into the world that is their poem. Instead they warm up to the subject, saunter over to it, holding the reader by the hand, easing toward the matter.

To plunge once meant “to bring or pump up by plunging.” A transitive verb in this usage, plunging is to act upon something else. The OED, from which I’m quoting here, gives us George Turberville, from his Epitaphs: “Plunge vp a thousande sighes, for griefe your trickling teares distill.” Plunge up sighs! Sigh no more ladies, hey nonny no. Turberville was a 16th Century poet and falconer, by the way, more or less the contemporary of Shakespeare. To lift your arm so that a hawk might plunge up into the turbulance—what a distinct pleasure that would be.

Think of plunging when you begin a poem: plunging the mind into the world to bring something up.

To plunge is “to enter fully or wholeheartedly into,” as in this Edmund Burke line: “The character of their party is to be very ready to plunge into different business.”

Let the poem enter itself, don’t tarry or saunter. Go wholeheartedly, or I’d like to say here, wholebrainedly into the poem. Fire those brain cells. If you must stand up and wave your arms to bring your whole heart, your whole brain into the business of the poem, then stand up.

Or in some other way, get your body moving. Make those brain cells that send information out into the world sizzle. For me, Bach is perfect. At the piano, my hands move because my brain speaks to them, and my brain speaks because my eyes study the notes on the page, a page that stands upright on the piano, and with the first notes, everything is plunging suddenly, completely surrounded by the world Bach creates. And then I return to the page, ready to plunge into the poem.

To plunge is “to baptize by immersion” In plunging, both the poet and the reader are baptized into the world of the poem. You, writing, must go beneath the water, submerge yourself.

To plunge  is “to move or travel forth rapidly, abruptly, recklessly.” Emphasis on reckless. Do not be shy. Do not go gentle.

One last use of plunge comes from the gardening world. One way of planting is to put the entire pot with the plant inside it right down into the soil, that is to plunge the plant. Another perspective on immersion: once immersed, the poem can grow into something that flourishes where it can been seen by all. This pot might be a strict form, a sonnet, say; or it might be a tone or emotional stance; or it might be a motif of repetition or image. Put your poem into such a pot, but don’t let it sit on the surface, plunge it, so that it might take on a new life.

Touch body to brain and plunge yourself into the poem forthwith.

Author’s Bio.: Athena Kildegaard writes poetry mostly, but she has also written short stories, scripts for television, columns, and nonfiction. Her books of poetry are Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011), both from Red Dragonfly Press, and Cloves & Honey (2012) from Nodin Press. Her poems appear widely in literary journals and anthologies. She has received grants from the Lake Region Arts Council and the Minnesota State Arts Board and the LRAC/McKnight Fellowship. She is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Morris.  Athena is currently serving as a co-editor of the Lake Region Review and as treasurer of the LRWN. Check out her blog/website at http://athenakildegaard.com/

LRAC Launches Second Short Writing Contest

After a successful start in 2013, Lake Region Arts Council (LRAC) launches a second Short Writing Contest, starting Feb. 1, 2014. The online Short Writing Contests are part of a unique strategy to involve more people in the fun of writing and to raise awareness of the grants and services provided by Lake Region Arts Council. The first contest reached over 2,000 people, who tried their hand at writing a story in six words. Funds raised from entry fees go to support the grants and services provided by the Lake Region Arts Council.

LRAC was so impressed with the outcome of the first competition that they have decided to run the Short Writing Contest again. First place prize money will increase to $500. Contest rules and an online entry form can be found at www.shortwritingcontest.com.

The first Short Writing Contest winner was chosen from over 300 worldwide entries. Jon Kendrick won $100 for “Biographer wanted: short life, long story.”

Jon KendrickJon eagerly encourages others to enter, “Thank you one and all. I would like to thank SWC & LRAC for having the six-word story contest. When I received the email, I was more than shocked, flabbergasted would be more accurate. If you write, the biggest thrill is that someone sees your work and likes it. Whether they chuckle, cry or ponder. For someone to like your work, grand or small, is important to you. Thank you.”

The rise in popularity of writing very short stories is connected to the famous writer Ernest Hemingway. It seems that Hemingway was once challenged to write a complete story in six words. Here is what he wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Some people say it was written to settle a bar bet. Others say it was a personal challenge directed at other famous authors, but it proves that it is possible to create a short story with just six words.

Lake Region Arts Council expects an even bigger response to their second Short Writing Contest. “It warms my heart every time I hear from someone who tries writing a six-word story and finds that they enjoy writing,” states Executive Director, Maxine Adams. “Encouraging people to try their hand at writing is what the contest is all about.”

All the latest news about the next Short Writing Contest and items of interest to the Short Writing Community can be seen https://www.facebook.com/ShortWritingContest . For additional information about The Lake Region Arts Council, please visit http://www.LRAC4.org.

Enter for your chance to win $500 at www.shortwritingcontest.com.

About Lake Region Arts Council: The Lake Region Arts Council is a nonprofit organization dedicated to encourage and support the vitality of the arts. The LRAC accomplishes this through providing grants to community organizations and individual artists in the region; and providing an electronic newsletter, workshops and technical assistance. LRAC serves the counties of: Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Traverse and Wilkin in west central Minnesota.

A Fresh Voice

Last summer, while participating in a writers’ retreat, I was introduced to the writing of Junot Diaz, a native of the Dominican Republic, who is as well known in today’s American literary circles as another Dominican, Sammy Sousa, is to American League baseball fans. Diaz’s fresh, insightful, often startling, use of the English language has earned him a 2008 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critic Circle Award, the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and other prestigious awards.

His most recent book, This Is How You Lose Her, introduced me to the ribald street language of his American/Dominican subculture. It is a bastardized English that emerges from the raw human emotions of resisting, as well as adapting to a dominant culture, of trying to figure out what is real with intimacy, sex and love, and of searching for personal balance in a flurry of social change.

With a master fiction writer’s touch he introduced me to his marginalized life, between Santo Domingo and New Jersey, allowing me to experience the stunning brilliance, the raw brutality and the loving tenderness of the characters he creates. His emotional honesty and artful use of idiomatic language are a clinic in creative writing.

Diaz writes about experiences relevant to all of us as we interact and develop with and within various sub-cultures and ethnic backgrounds. These experiences become our history and shape and reshape our personal and collective identities.  Diaz shows us as writers how to tell our stories from the inside out, anchoring them in our sometimes desperate need for security in love and physical well-being. His stories come alive through characters he knows, who have demanding primal appetites that are frustrated by others, both close and distant.

Our Upper Midwest Region has many sub-cultures needing literary voices to bring them to our attention and understanding much like Junot Diaz has done with his Dominican heritage. He happens to be an “insider” with considerable literary talent. We are a region which is becoming increasingly diverse as the changing economics of agriculture and high-tech industries emerge. We need poets and memoir, fiction, and script writers to depict what it is like: to grow old in a small town, to be an immigrant, a prisoner, a returning soldier, a displaced migrant worker, to live on a reservation, to lose the farm, be a long-haul trucker, to be unemployed, an oil field worker. . . the list goes on and on. Most of us are “insiders” of one tribe or another who can chronicle and express the personal, familial, and cultural changes we  experience. This is best done by “insiders” who practice the craft of creative writing.

I have found by participating in writer’s workshops, classes, and reading how-to-books I develop and sharpen my craft as a writer. By studying the work of accomplished Upper Midwest authors, I expand and deepen my understanding of my environment and, in the process, uncover ways I can contribute as an “insider.” Finally, by reading new, contemporary voices like Junot Diaz I am challenged to experiment, try new ways, and to think and write in a fresh voice.

Lake Region Writers Network’s mission is: “to cultivate and celebrate creative writers by building a supportive community.” We invite you to share your “insider” experience by submitting your written work to be considered for inclusion in Lake Region Review 4. Watch for our “Call for Submissions” on this website in early 2014.

Author’s Bio.: Luke Anderson started writing poetry and memoir after retiring from a career managing nonprofit organizations. He calls himself a “late onset writer.” His work has been published in The Talking Stick, The Otter Tail Review, The Northwoods Press newspapers, the Lake Region Review and has received several literary awards. He is retired and lives in Battle Lake. He is a member of the Fergus Falls Writers and a founding board member of the Lake Region Writers Network.

Poets and Polaroids

We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are. ~ Anias Nin

On the afternoon of Friday, October 4, I dispatched my poetry class to various locations in Fergus Falls. These were not places you would find in the local tourist brochures or chamber of commerce listings. Rather, these were places – a laundromat, a trailer court, a tattoo shop, and a tobacco store and others – that demanded a keener level of awareness and attention, a sharper perceptual lens of intrigue and curiosity.

Up until that October afternoon, we had been studying and discussing the importance of mindfulness as the essential tool for excavating the poetic moments in one’s life. Poet Jane Hirshfield, in her Fooling with Words (1999) interview, reminded us of the importance of being present and awake in the moment. She implored us “To be translucently awake – which should be simple but somehow is quite hard – instead of living in a haze of distraction, hope and fear, as we usually do.” She reminded us that, “In a state of open mindfulness, a broad subliminal attention is going out in many directions at once. Now, when you write a poem you are doing this all the time, sending out the tendrils of your attention.”

After arriving at their assigned destinations, the students engaged in a mindfulness exercise by feeling their own presence in places both familiar and unfamiliar, places recognized but oft ignored. The students charted the sentient signals emitted from the places. Then, using the raw, scattered material they had gathered from their observations, the students shaped their perceptions into poems.

A week later, while walking through the hallway at M|State, I encountered John Cox, the college’s art instructor. At the time, John was teaching a photography class. His students had been learning how to capture photographic images with Polaroid cameras. That’s right – our parents’ Polaroid camera, the one that spits out a square of slimy film paper while the photographer waits for an image to emePoets and Polaroids Posterrge. While describing to John the purpose and parameters of the mindfulness excursion in my poetry class, I noticed a spark of possibility in his eyes. John suggested we embark on a collaborative project. His photography students would read my students’ poems and then visit and photograph the places that inspired the poems. Thus was born the Poets and Polaroids Exhibit on the Fergus Falls campus of M|State.

King Koin Laundromat PolaroidYou’ll notice that the photo of the King Koin Laundromat is a bit grainy and sepia-toned. Though taken in October 2013, it evokes a vintage vibe. This is not a botched photo. Rather, the photo illustrates that uncontrollable yet essential separation between the artist’s intention and the artistic process. Like the poet who is surprised by the unexpected tug of a poem, the Polaroid photographer never can be certain of the clarity, colors and contrasts of the photographic image.

Written by M|State student Daphne Van Veen, here is the poem that accompanies the Laundromat photo taken by M|State student Kayleigh Mavis.

King Koin

Relieved to be here
on a brisk day,
revived from the cold.
This is a place appearing
to be so quiet, but never
completely silent.

Washing machines
Echo throughout the Laundromat.
Putting babies to sleep.
As new mothers
read outdated Oprah Magazines,
counting the minutes
for their clothes to be clean.

Dryer sheets scatter
and crumple among
unkempt tiles. A coke
machine stands in
the corner, buzzing
for attention.

Pungent odor of stale
detergent imbues
from ceiling to floor.
Some days
it is dreary to be here,
waiting for the cycles,
to begin and end.

Perhaps the most rewarding outcome from this project was the students’ appreciation of how art forms can intersect and cross-pollinate. In this case, a poet arrives at a place acutely attuned to seemingly random perceptions, images, and recollections. Later, unbeknownst to the poet, a photographer visits the same space and captures on film the confluence of movement, dimension, light, shadow, color, and surface.  In the end, each departs from the place slightly altered, and the subsequent artistic endeavor reflects that psychic alteration.

Author’s Bio.: Paul Carney joined the English Dept. at M|State Fergus Falls in 1988. During his tenure at M|State he has taught courses in composition, literature, humanities, men’s studies, criminology, and creative writing. Carney has served two terms as President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of English. He is a former fellow and board member of The Minnesota Writing Project, the state affiliate of The National Writing Project. He is the developer and coordinator of Ready or Not Writing (https://www.centerforcollegereadiness.org/), an online program that invites high school students to submit their writing electronically to college faculty for feedback and support. In 2008, he created the Roadside Poetry Project, a project that celebrates the personal pulse of poetry in the public landscape (Http://www.roadsidepoetry.org). A writer of poetry and prose, his work has appeared in The Lake Region Review, River of Time, The Sun, and The Minnesota English Journal. When he’s not writing, he enjoys collecting old radios, planting trees, listening to jazz, and watching The Andy Griffith Show. He lives on an 8-acre hobby farm in Underwood, MN, where his lifelong quest for Mayberry has ended.

Writing a Memoir – Someday

One day when my fifties-age daughter Betsy mentioned something about my having been born in Fargo, I was baffled. “Where did you get the idea I was born in Fargo?” I asked. “I was born right here in Fergus Falls!”

“So when did you live in Fargo?” she asked. Suddenly I realized I had never shared with my children any significant details about my life or the lives of my parents and other relatives, or what it had been like growing up during the Great Depression and World War II.

Several times Betsy had asked me to write about my childhood. I had said I would like to… Someday. There was so much I could tell my two daughters. However, too many other things always took priority, until suddenly I realized how fast time was slipping away. I needed to start writing immediately, or I probably never would. “Someday” had arrived. Almost immediately I dropped everything and began writing about my life, from the earliest time I could remember.

During my pre-television childhood, I was responsible for my own entertainment, as were many kids (perhaps most) in those days. I stayed busy outside, playing with my siblings and other children in the neighborhood. In winter we romped in the snow, skated on Lake Alice, went sliding in Roosevelt Park and on the big hill between Mt. Faith and Summit Avenues, where a cow grazed in summer.

In town, my friends and I played dress-up, parading around the block in ladies dresses and high-heeled shoes. During summers at Jewett Lake, there were endless opportunities for swimming and fishing, climbing trees, hiking, building forts, picking wild berries and visiting the nearby farm. On rainy days my siblings and I worked on art and craft projects, played cards and board games like Monopoly, read, and listened to radio programs: The Lone Ranger, Superman, Jack Armstrong, and my favorite, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his Mighty Dog King. (On, you Huskies!) And comedies: Fibber McGee and Mollie, Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy. Years later, people would call it the Golden Age of Radio.

I wanted to tell my children and grandchildren what life had been like in those golden, olden days of the forties and fifties. Besides, I liked to write. It would be fun. I began writing down some of my earliest memories of small-town life in Fergus Falls and at the lake, then moving to Washington, D.C., Fargo, and Minneapolis. They were mostly happy times that included my parents, my older sister Katherine and younger brother Butch. But before long, I realized I needed to hone my writing skills, ask questions, and look up facts.

My writing odyssey began three years ago at the Fergus Falls Writing Group with the beginnings of a memoir about my childhood. The first time I brought a few pages to be critiqued, I discovered how much I had to learn. I had written some family stories I thought were fairly good, but those first musings, though they had potential, needed a lot more work.

Undeterred, I forged ahead. As I wandered through the uncharted territory of my memory bank, I remembered more, reliving many early life experiences by sharing them with others. Incidents I thought I had forgotten years ago came to the surface, spawning more memories along the way. With more practice and helpful comments from my fellow writers, my writing skills improved.

At each bi-weekly session, two or three members, who had volunteered ahead of time, read aloud a few pages of their work. The others jotted down corrections or suggestions for improvement on copies of the manuscript. The sense of comradery at the meetings was, and still is, encouraging and helpful as each person takes a turn expressing his or her ideas, resulting in a lively, good-natured discussion with a variety of comments and opinions.

The more I think about those early times of my life, the more I remember. The more I write, read aloud, and make corrections or changes, the more my work improves. Not all my childhood memories are happy, but I have found that re-examining embarrassing or painful incidents in my life with an open mind and a desire to move on, is an opportunity to grow, as a writer and a person. That’s part of the value of writing a memoir. Not someday, but right now.

Author’s Bio.: Liz Sweder is a member of the Fergus Falls Writing Group, and she has had a few of her memoir stories published in Lake Region Review.

Why Am I Not Writing?

The count is now 41 days. Months and months since I have written anything of value, but 41 days is the significant number. A friend asked me a while ago why I haven’t been writing. I gave her all the usual excuses, but then being a good friend, she pushed it further and I had to come up with the real reason I have been so unproductive. I had become addicted to winning.

I have read that it takes 14 days to make a habit, and 14 days to break a habit, that is where the 41 days comes in. I had gotten so wrapped up in winning at computer games like Spider Solitaire  (Is it appropriate here to brag about my Mine-Sweeper score?) that much like Pavlov’s dogs, each time I sat down at my computer my mind would crave a win, and I would be playing a game before I even realized it. I recently heard that the Candy Crush game is as addictive as heroin because playing it affects the same pleasure centers of the brain. Winning gave me a high and satisfied my competitive spirit, but it also dulled my ability to think, and certainly stole creative time.

So when I returned home from a yoga training weekend (one of my excuses–teaching yoga), I took advantage of the computer-free head start I had and vowed that I was done wasting my time playing games.  I knew I only needed two weeks to overcome my habit, and I managed it by changing the way I spoke to myself. Each time temptation struck as I checked my email or paid bills, I would tell myself “No, I do not play computer games.” Positive self-talk is powerful and effective because your body hears and responds to what your mind says. FYI: Negative self-talk is just as powerful, but that’s another blog.

The 14 days worked and not only am I free from the desire to play those games, but my mind feels clearer and finding that elusive word I am looking for has become easier. Did someone add time to the day? Another wonderful outcome! I am not one who believes in “writer’s block,” and I don’t like the many articles perpetuating that idea. To me it sets up a false excuse for why a writer is not creating, and it prevents her from searching for the real reason. A few honest answers and I now feel free to write again.

If you are struggling to write your reason may be different, but the solution is the same: honest answers, powerful self-talk, and 14 days. Now if I can just manage Facebook….

About the Author: Lois Reff has published a monthly motivational newsletter since 2002.  She enjoys learning about and writing in the genre of fiction.  She has participated in several Barnes and Noble writing workshops, and the Weekend With Your Novel workshop at the University of Wisconsin.  She is an active member of the Fergus Falls Writers’ Group.  She is currently working on a mystery novel. She and her husband, along with six pets, live north of Fergus Falls by Jewett Lake. Lois is serving as the LRWN Conference Director.

The Accidental Writer

Hi!  I’m Ruth Solie and I am the out-going President of the Lake Region Writers Network – even though I have never called myself, or considered myself, a writer.

I am a reader and an evangelist for the written word. Literary arts have been a passion all my life.  As a sponsor of a Little Free Library and a librarian for more than 30 years, I have promoted reading and literacy for everyone and sought to make books available to people of all ages and in all settings. The written word has been my life line and my recreation. Sharing the written word of others has been my joy.

Though I don’t think of myself as a writer, the fact is, I write all the time. But only for myself. I recently counted 23 personal journals sitting on my shelf. These have been created in just the past few years. Elsewhere are journals from my youth and travel journals.  I have bundles of letters I have written over the years and boxes of family letters spanning generations. I am surrounded by my own writing – and none of it published and little of it written for anyone other than myself.

The personal journals are written by me, for me, as an extension of my thought process. These journals are part of a meditative, reflective practice. They are casual and often random, containing poetry and quotations, sketches, thoughts, and lists. There are rants as I work through deeply personal issues. There are long passages of gratitude and love.  There may be a household budget scenario followed by a passage from another writer. There are reflections on what I have read.

These journals are totally eclectic in nature, and I use them as a way to sort out my life, to dream, to understand, to reflect, and to appreciate. The fact they are messy only indicates how my mind has a lot going on and writing is a way to clarify things and to find – sometimes – a path to understanding, gratitude, and peace.

What does the Lake Region Writers Network have to offer me? Quite a lot. Though I do not write with an eye to publication,

  • I want to be a better writer, and I want the tools to express myself more eloquently.
  • I want, as well, to better understand and appreciate the writing that others share with the world.
  •  I want to build an audience for the writers in our region.
  • I want to mingle and converse with writers – via the printed page and in face-to- face encounters.
  • I want to explore resources that are available to me and to share resources I have found that might be useful to others.
  • And, I want to be a part of a community that values and appreciates the written word.

The Lake Region Writers Network provides an opportunity for me to do all of this.

LRWN is a big umbrella that includes people like me (a writer without aspiration to publication), early-stage writers developing their skills, writers well on the path, and the famous, award-winning writers who not only share their finished work but generously share the tools of their craft with others. There is something for everyone under this umbrella. There is much to learn, to share, and to marvel at. I enjoy being a part of this community that celebrates the written word, and I’m glad you are a part of this community, too. The umbrella is large and the people here are the most interesting you’ll find anywhere!

Whether you write for yourself, for an audience, for publication, or just for the pleasure of it, you are part of the rich literary fabric of Minnesota. As LRWN begins its sixth year as an organization in the nine counties of west central Minnesota, we invite you to use our resources, attend our events, make contributions to the blog, contribute to the Lake Region Review and attend our writers conference.  We’re sure you’ll find good people, good writing, and good experiences. And, like me, you may discover you are more of a writer than you ever thought you were.

Author’s Bio.: Ruth Solie has been a librarian for over 30 years, working with all kinds of libraries and in a variety of communities. She grew up in Montana, attended Carleton College as an undergraduate, and received graduate degrees from Michigan State University and the University of Chicago.  Her personal commitment is to literature, literacy, libraries, and young children. She has been an active promoter and supporter of the literary arts in Minnesota through involvement with the Minnesota Book Award program, as co-chair of the Spotlight on Books Conference, and extensive library programming over the years. She is honored to work with the writers of the Lakes Region Writers Network. Ruth is serving as president of the LRWN Board.