Painters to Poets

In July 2002, seven of us were fortunate enough to have a workshop at a private home in Tucson taught by the poet, Gina Franco. She teaches poetry writing, 18th & 19th-century British literature, Gothic literature, poetry translation, Borderland writing, religion and literature, and literary theory at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She was awarded the Philip Green Wright-Lombard Prize for distinguished teaching. She earned degrees from Smith College and Cornell University.

I recently pulled out my files of classes and workshops and thumbed back to 2002. (My writers’ group jokingly refers to me as ‘the historian’ of our writing life.) I read through my notes from this workshop. I also tend to scribble notes not relative to the topic at hand or draw sketches of other classmates if I get bored, but in this file, there were none of those side tracks.

The content was a very intense route of the historians up through the modernists and how these poets were influenced by St. Augustine’s confessions, and how others used it to fit or create a new style of poetry. Post-WWII, many moved into abstraction vs. concrete, wanting to get away from the ‘feeling’, the deep-down confessional and traditional way of expression. Long story short—loose, individual culture, voice, and finding that individual voice on the page came about. Gina then compared short story writing to poetry, using omniscient, an exaggerated first person as in ‘I”, reactionary, stream of consciousness, arbitrary, conflict, and many more.

Alas, during this workshop, my head ached at the end of each meeting. In some of the discussions, I was crystal clear on structure, enjambed, stress syllables, expository, juxtaposition, and other times, my brain crinkled up like a small paper bag, and I down shifted to neutral to coast to the next refreshment break. I did not even have the energy to doodle.

At the end of the workshop, that last night, I was far too overstimulated, at the same time, far too exhausted I could barely drive home. One thing stuck, what the expressionists were doing with paints, the poets wanted to do with words. Images by painters were coveted by poets. As an artist, I got this transition. 

Poetry as I know it is an elegant dance. Strokes and splashes make meaning from memory and makes meaning from objects, and art into words. Like brushstrokes in a painting, words can transform onto a page to create a multidimensional world. With words, a poet can create crisp images and evocative descriptions that capture sensory perceptions in the ‘mind’s’ eye.

The few workshops I have taken on poetry have always drawn something out of me. On the last evening, I was thrilled when Gina gave us another prose poem to study, then pick five words that resonated with you personally, and write.

The birch sways with an imbalance

and I worship with a prayer of wild violets.

The darkness rises above my head

and the trunk of the birch splits dark red.

Rising is unreachable, filling my eyes

with evening rain, and peace wanders in

like a garden.

Give poetry another look.  


Thursday prompt 9.15.22 Aroma!

Smell is the first sense we are aware of and the last sense we may lose. Smell is attached to memory, a whiff of a familiar scent may instantly bring up a memory from your childhood for instance. Write about smells from your childhood—list five you remember well, then choose one to explore. What associations do you have with that smell? Such as early morning aromas from the kitchen, certain holidays as you walked into a room, smells from a farm, summer cut hay, cough syrup? What other emotional memory goes along with it?

Time Holds You In Its Hands

Snow came down harder and harder, over and over, day after day.  Each morning I looked out the little guest room window I shared with my father, I groaned at the site, wondering how the van driver could get up the long sidewalk, now buried under snow, to wheel my dad back to the van for dialysis a mile away.

View outside parent’s apartment

Seven days prior my mother called to say dad was in the hospital with double pneumonia.  At age eighty-five and failing kidneys, I made a quick decision to fly to Illinois and of course upon my arrival was the very first approaching winter snow storm in the Midwest.

Early the very next day, I drove to Quincy at Blessing hospital to see dad. The news was out the storm was on its way, blazing up through Oklahoma and hammering across Missouri to Quincy which sets right on the Mississippi River on the Illinois side. One of my cousins called at 11:00 say the snow was falling one inch every fifteen minutes and to watch out the window. I sat by dad and chatted about anything he wanted to talk about or hear about, looking over my shoulder out the window which faced the river. Please let me have enough time to stay. Within a half hour of my phone call, I saw the white blanket of snow coming across the river and heading toward the hospital. It was a thick sheet of white. 

“Dad, I have to go, the snow has hit, and I can’t see more than three blocks’ from here. I need to stay ahead of it.” A nurse popped her head in, “You better hurry, it’s time!”

“No problem, no problem, I know you need to go, you get along.”  Dad was thin, gray, and reached for my hand. I kissed him and said I would be back as soon as possible. 

Living in Arizona, we do not see much snow, fast and furious, covering sidewalks, and city streets, burying cars within minutes. I drove the little Ford 4-wheel drive Ranger my brother loaned me through town onto the interstate. The roads were barely visible but I could see the sidewalks and stop lights. The right lane had a few tire tracks imprinted in the snow but quickly vanished. The further I drove, the harder the snow and the narrow tracks I followed disappeared. What aligned me to keep going was the snow had not yet stuck to the dead grass along the interstate and I measured the distance from the grass to my right tires to stay on the pavement at 45 mph as other motorists pulled off to the side. How much time would it take to get back to mom? I could see her glancing at her watch, straining through the curtains and the haze of snow. There were enough worries and concerns weighing down the hands of her clock.

I spun and skidded up a small incline, down shifted, and finally pulled in front of my parents’ small apartment. Time let me make it. Time gave me a break. Time allowed me to bring my dad home from the hospital on cleared roads three days later.

View from hospital window

Leaving Home

We three gals had written side by side for a solid and lively ten years before Jackie and her husband moved from Tucson to the north of Denver in 2009. Our narratives throughout Telling Tales and Sharing Secrets weave in and out and then grab hold of this departure that ended up being one of the stronger forces to bring this book back together. At Jackie’s departure, we had felt like stagehands, sweeping up after a fabulous run-on Broadway and nowhere to go.

The first year was quiet in figuring out how to continue with our book project. We roughly met via email, Facetime, and bounced long-distance ideas back and forth and continued ‘other’ writing as our writers’ group. When Jackie arrived on the scene in person, we gritted down for hours daily, a large oval table crammed with plans, layouts, choosing of stories, and by end of the day, exhaustion, yet high on fulfillment.

We also required diversions after such deep digging into long tunnels and channels of our writing. We saved a day, or long evening, to do something silly, fun, and restorative to reward ourselves.

On this trip, we chose Tubac, an artsy little village in the Santa Cruz River Valley south of Tucson. We think of Tubac more as a ‘woman’s jaunt,’ (only because some of our husbands considered the best part of Tubac was in the rearview mirror.) We string through the adobe and ivy-covered brick shops like a band of gooselings, our silly chatter permeating the cooler interior rooms. Everything entertains us, and if not, we entertain one another. We loosen our strings and become ourselves together, enjoying one another’s presence as we survey a piece of handmade mesquite furniture, a glass cabinet filled with polished stones set in hand-crafted silver, and oil paintings. We laugh out loud in a stationary shop and pass comical cards back and forth, jutting a chin over each other’s shoulders to read along guffawing without reservation; point and ‘ooooh’ and ‘ahhh’, quip positive critiques about a piece of pottery or metal artwork, and roll our eyes at some of the price tags. We pull on bright-colored hats, wrap fringed scarves around our necks, dance to the high-spirited music drifting through an intercom, hide behind a rack and say “boo” and relentlessly tease one another. We meander together or apart and drift back as one body. Same as our writing.

Late afternoon arrived on that sunny Thursday far too soon. Our legs had given out and we stuffed our packages, sacks, hats, and water bottles in the car. We were full of saucy enchiladas and delicious Tamarindo margaritas from Wisdoms. We drove to Green Valley which is a retirement community between Tubac and Tucson to drop Jackie off at her sister-in-law’s who would take her to the airport early the next morning.

Once unloaded from the car, Jackie’s sister-in-law came out of the shade of her house and joined us on the driveway. Oh, those stupid goodbyes! With tight hugs and tear-rimmed eyes, this was proof and disbelief that Jackie was not an everyday fixture of our lives as before. But being the women we are and the attention we can draw, we had a quick bonus. A large shiny fire truck drove by nice and slowly, loaded with good-looking young men. We immediately stood at attention. They all waved and turned the truck around at the end of the cul-de-sac, came back by, and tooted horns with big handsome smiles. We gals giggled, jiggled our shoulders, and waved back. Jackie says, “Man, they think we are hot mamas!” The truth of it, the nice guys in the glossy red fire truck probably said, “Let’s give these old broads a thrill.”

As noted at the bottom of the page ‘Praise for Our Book’ on our website, this clearly defines who we are.  

Take A Sentimental Journey

Ralph Waldo Emerson was the one who set the stage for journaling, creating what was a new genre at that time. While at Harvard, Emerson began his lifelong practice of keeping a journal. He regarded them as his “savings bank,” where he could express and examine ideas without public exposure. He also wrote poetry in his journals and illustrated many of his pages professing his early “hunger and thirst to be a painter. “

Diary is considered more of a day-to-day quick referencing of what may have happened in a twenty-four-hour period. Depending upon the size of one’s diary, most only had room to be said in ten words or less. As an early teen, I began with tiny Hallmark pocketbook annual calendars. By late teens and into early twenties, I moved to a ‘pocket’ size datebook and learned to write smaller, cramping in more words, using made-up abbreviations I later couldn’t decipher even if I were highly trained in the world of espionage decoding.

As time pressed on, so did the way I needed to express my thoughts. I discovered journals, lovely, lively journals. I found out a journal is a journey. One moment in a day, one small experience can be taken to several pages and can make a thought dig a deep well into what is truly on a person’s mind. It invites space to ramble, scribble pictures, imagine, discover, and come back to as readable references, such as Emerson’s “savings bank”.

Recently I dug through my past diaries, tossed 1972-1978. The tiny colorful Hallmarks were long gone, not leaving much of a ‘hallmark’ in my life. I name my journals as to what I might or hope to discover, and mostly, be surprised as I write into this new journey, the smooth and untouched empty pages anxiously awaiting. My journal is an expansion, a self-reflection of me and things around me. It allows me to be comfortable in telling what I want to say, and oftentimes, just to visit with myself.

Back to dear old Emerson, I took note of that “savings bank” when I wrote the piece Love’s Transitions in Telling Tales and Sharing Secrets. This is not the first piece published from my exploration into my journals. Poetry has sprung to life, essays of family, and downright funny stories. This tool is a fascinating way to journey through ‘your’ trip with time.

If you have a journal, give time to it. If not, there is one waiting just for you.

Thursday Prompt – 8.25.22

I love sensory details: smell, sound, sight, touch, taste, and yes, a 6th, extrasensory perception/intuition. Use as many of these as you like to write a short story…one page or less.

You are walking on a beach and see this little girl. As you get closer, she looks up and asks you to write her name in the sand. What does her little voice sound like? What is her name, and what do you do? Do you have a conversation? What are the sounds and smells around you?  

Summer Stories

Now that we are in mid-August, in some locations, summer is noticeably dwindling. Kids are back in school, yellow buses lumbering through neighborhoods, football practice and schedules gearing up, State Fairs barely wrapped up, swimming pools either being drained or covered in preparation for cooler weather. Here in Tucson, we have had quenching summer monsoons which dropped the temperature comfortably but raised the humidity horribly. For residents in a climate of ‘dry heat’ as we call this, are not used to sweaty foreheads and armpits when leaving the house. To get, we give. For instance, the surrounding Catalina Mountain Range looks like green cliffs in Brazil, jagged rock with layers of greens, rich and luscious. It doesn’t take much if you have an imagination, but the colors and tones summer rains bring are well noted from any distance here in the Old Pueblo.

Seasonal change is accountable and reliable, and for me, that bridge—one leaving to allow for another—between each inspires me to sit and write about our desert region, or the mid-west where I was raised, our summers of fishing in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, fresh mown lawns, sleepovers in tents strung up haphazardly in a back yard, picnics and cloud watching.

Scattered throughout our book, there are tidbits of these seasons from the past, current, and inspirations they bring to mind and to the page.

What was a high point over your summer vacation?

Snag That Character

On my desk, this little gray book sits alongside Roget’s II The New Thesaurus, Strunk and White Elements of Style and Instant English Handbook. In this petite jewel with yellowed pages, the author, Benjamin Heydrick has a delicious amount of ingredients that form a short story. If you notice, the copyright is 1913, and most, if not all lessons, still accurately apply today.

Writing the Right Word with the Right Spice

As we wrote Telling Tales and Sharing Secrets, our meals had become such a part of the glue, the writing motivation, that our first chapter became Spiral Bound Gourmets. We note in this chapter what we prepared for that meeting, the prompt, what we wrote, and any comments. But, like the evolution of fine-tuned writing, so does the emergence of various foods. 

At the beginning of our writer’s group, the hostess served tea or coffee. This was particularly nice since we first began to write together in the chilly month of November. The steam rising from the brim of a cup while pens scribbled in notebooks was a comforting bond. A polite slurp, a pen scratching out a disliked word, or a soft sigh easing between lips forming the next sentence.

Jackie’s Chicken Tortilla Soup

Shortly thereafter, little pastries or cookies popped up on a plate at our meetings. Since I love to cook, I began preparing an entire meal for our writing sessions. We would visit while we ate, write for an hour, read, discuss over dessert, and then a five-minute quick write to wrap up. It was a hit! And so was the writing. We wrote full. We dished out funny stories, served up thoughtful poetry, extended slow cooked writing from the week before, and had ‘take-out’ ideas for the next meeting. And so began our new addition to our writing group meetings. Each hostess prepared an easy meal with dessert. This was such a delight and something more to look forward to over the next many years. And what variety, just as in our writing.

Diana’s Brunch Asparagus Casserole

One early evening while gathered at my house, a member rushed in late, out of breath and looking a bit desperate. She hadn’t had time for lunch, and did I have anything? I was totally caught off guard. I rummaged through the pantry grabbed a few saltine crackers, and sat a tin of Altoids on the table. Really? Altoids? I meekly hoped they would come across as ‘fine after dinner mints’. We then wrote about being hungry, favorites, and worst foods.

Sally’s Crusted Salmon Patties w/ Aioli

Taking time to prepare a meal, whether richly laden, or simple fare, is to show honor for those at our table. Sitting and writing together opens the door to forming another lasting bond, an honor to friendship, words, and spice.  

Today’s Prompt – Think Small, Write Larger

Think of a small area you know well but usually don’t think about — a hall closet, an empty lot, the garage where you park your car, inside of a drawer… Write three paragraphs of praise for this place and the particulars about it. Don’t worry if it seems silly and farfetched. Just let yourself find details to praise.