Poem of the Week, by Osip Mandelstam

The Necklace
– Osip Mandelstam (1920; translated from the Russian by Christian Wiman)

Take, from my palms, for joy, for ease,
A little honey, a little sun,
That we may obey Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat unmoored.
Fur-shod shadows can’t be heard,
Nor terror, in this life, mastered.

Love, what’s left for us, and of us, is this
Living remnant, loving revenant, brief kiss
Like a bee flying completed dying hiveless

To find in the forest’s heart a home,
Night’s never-ending hum,
Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time.

Take, for all that is good, for all that is gone,
That it may lie rough and real against your collarbone,
This string of bees, that once turned honey into sun.

For more information on Osip Mandelstam, please click here: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/698

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Alison-McGhee/119862491361265?ref=ts

Poem of the Week, by Anna Journey

Diagnosis: Birds in the Blood
– Anna Journey

The hummingbird’s nervous embroidery
through beach fog by our back

patio’s potato vine
reminds me of my mother’s southern

drawl from the kitchen: She’s flying,
flying like bird! I’ve heard that

as a child I involuntarily flapped my hands
at my side during moments

of intense concentration. I’d flutter
over a drawing, a doll, a blond hamster

in a shoebox maze. There are ways
to keep from breaking

apart. My guardians. My avian
blood. I believed

birds bubbled inside me—my own
diagnosis—though the doctors called it

something else: a harmless
twitch. A body’s

crossed wires. The lost
birds of my childhood

nerves have never
returned. But when you held

my elbow as we walked the four
blocks to the boardwalk,

we saw the brief
dazzle of a black-

chinned hummingbird—the first
I’d ever seen. It sheened

and tried to sip
from my sizzled wrists’

vanilla perfume. I knew
a single one

from the magic
flock had finally found me.

For more about Anna Journey, please click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Journey

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Plan B

An acquaintance asks you if you have any words of wisdom to contribute for a talk she’s giving on the topic of “Building a Writing Life.”

You start to tap out a bunch of little bromides along the lines of a) make a practice of writing regularly, b) look at writing as a process rather than a series of finished projects, c) develop a good critical eye for your own work.

How dull. If you were an aspiring writer you would be at best unmoved and at most insulted by the boringness of these words of wisdom. You hit delete and abandon ship and go for a long walk with your dog.

But the frustration with your own words remains. Annie Dillard, in an essay that you’ve memorized because you love it so much (except for that one paragraph you hate and choose to ignore), says, “What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

You are enraging yourself –not too strong a word– by the triviality of your advice. This seems ridiculous; it’s only a simple talk to aspiring writers on building a writing life, for God’s sake. But the anger remains.

Now you’re thinking about a workshop you taught last fall, in which the writers were talking about this very thing. How to become a writer. How to make a life as an artist, whatever that art form –painting, writing, music, acting– might be. The difficulty of making a living, even a small living, as an artist.

You listened to them talking. Everything they said was true. There was nothing to disagree with. The conversation shifted to Plan B, the backup plan for when things don’t go the way you want them to.

“Screw Plan B!” one of them said. “It seems to me that if you have a Plan B you’re going to end up following Plan B and be guaranteed failure. Why not go for Plan A and at least know you tried?”

You looked at this writer. He is a person of strong opinions and enormous talent, and behind that talent is a ferocious determination. He was laughing, as he often is, but you knew he was dead serious.

“I never had a Plan B,” you heard yourself say, and you realized only then that it was true.

This was a weird thing for you to say, because you don’t much like to talk in class, or anywhere for that matter, about your own writing.

But you felt as if little puzzle pieces were all falling into place. Was it possible that you hadn’t realized until that moment that you were a Plan A-only type of person?

Yes. It was possible. You knew that from early on you wanted only to write a book, a beautiful book, but the fact that this was and remains your only goal felt like new information.

In that same moment, sitting there in class listening to your students, you realized that life is easier if you only have a Plan A. It makes prioritizing easy. Whatever you want to be, to do, whether it’s write a beautiful book or paint an astonishing painting, means that the book or the painting will always be the highest priority.

First comes the Plan A, then comes everything else. Whatever job you take to support the plan will be secondary to the plan. If you have children you’ll figure out how to keep writing when you have them. Maybe you’ll get up at 4, maybe you’ll stay up until 4. Somehow you’ll figure it out.

Even if you’re not a good writer –and you yourself weren’t– that won’t stop you. You’ll keep at it until you slowly get better. Because what other choice do you have? There’s nothing to fall back on, if you have no Plan B.

“Easy for you to say,” someone once said to you, after you told her you were pretty sure you would be writing even if you never published anything, “because you have published things.”

That kind of remark makes you go instantly quiet. It seems so rude to respond to it, to repeat that no, you’re pretty sure you’d be writing anyway. And the further truth, which is that you never think about the things you’ve published, also seems rude.

But it’s the truth. Anything published is behind you, and you only look ahead. All you want is to write that beautiful book, and it’s still out there. You haven’t done it yet. That book is waiting for you.

This –the fact that you have not yet accomplished your goal– also makes life easier. You don’t have to look around and think, Now what? You don’t have to try to come up with a new plan because the first plan is still operational. It’s a dream that’s still being realized.

It’s a dream that might never be realized. This, too, is something that hadn’t occurred to you. You’ve been like a shark, always swimming forward.

All this time you thought there was an end goal, didn’t you? That beautiful book out there, shimmering in the distance, waiting for you to write it. But what if the beautiful book is a mirage?

It comes to you now, finally, that the beautiful book is a mirage.

That this doesn’t bother you must mean something, but you’ll have to think on it for a while.

Another Picture Book Writing Workshop, Saturday, April 7


Greetings, writers!

Any of you picture book writers out there still feeling isolated? I’m offering another one-day picture book manuscript workshop on Saturday, April 7.

We’ll talk about the fascinating/fiendish (take your pick) specific challenges of writing these fabulous little books, including the essential elements of picture book writing: characters, story arc, language, beginnings and endings, voice and tension.

If you wish, you can bring in copies of a manuscript of your own (no more than 400 words) and we’ll read it aloud and discuss it. Or, just come and absorb whatever’s useful to you and your current or future work. Workshop is limited to a maximum of eleven.

Date: Saturday, April 7, 12:30-4:30 p.m.
Place: my house in Uptown Minneapolis.
Cost: $50 (payable by check or Paypal), including hand-outs and some kind of tasty homemade treat. Please email me at alison_mcghee@hotmail.com if you have questions or would like to sign up, and please feel free to forward this notice to any interested friends.