On Finding The Inner Light of Images: From Prose to Poetry

In a month, one year ago, I started this piece: I was at 9600 feet. I was in the shadow of a mountain named Nipple. I was in a little square of sunshine, one log spooling fire in the cabin’s woodstove.

And I had woken in dread of the last night’s numbered dead: perhaps a dozen then, an interactive online chart informs me now, nothing near the surreal numbers of this year since.  

Feeling useless, feeling uncertain, I surrounded myself with the old friends of my youth.  That day, I chose James Wright’s This Journey, a book of poetry published posthumously  in 1982 after Wright succumbed to cancer of the tongue.

I will confess it: I am a wordy poet, especially in the last ten years of writing creative nonfiction. I find myself wandering between poetry and prose: when do lines becomes sentences in an essay? And sentences lines of a poem?

 In James Wright’s shining poems, I was hoping to find out how simplicity could bare order out of chaos, how poetry could fire the smallest image.

A few weeks later, my husband handed me handed me a biography of James Wright’s life.

“Get inspired,” he said.

The biography by Jonathan Blunk, James Wright: A Life in Poetry, gave me a snippet of  Wright’s revision process for his poetry.  And perhaps an answer to my questions.  

In 1972, Wright saw a yellow spider stepping through its dusty web.  Five years later, Wright describes that image in a letter to his poet-son Franz Wright:

            [The web] positively sagged with dust. And as I watched, a slim, brilliantly yellow spider stepped out of her doorway in the center of the web. In all that dust, she was amazing: she was totally untouched by the smallest spec, as though she had just gone inside and taken a shower.

 In creative nonfiction, we talk about digging down for the verticality of the story and how that verticality or inner truth so often translates itself through metaphor. And we find those metaphors firmly and beautifully presented in the sentences of prose. Wright’s spider is beautifully described in his letter. I would have been happy to write that description.

But in Wright’s poem, “The Journey,” (do read it! It’s a beauty) the spider appears in the third stanza—utterly transformed from the spider of the letter and utterly embedded in a line of poetry, not a sentence.  Now the spider’s yellow hue  is the “golden hair of daylight along her shoulders” and the dust of the web have become whole “cemeteries.” The “deep image” runs rampant. Ruins surround her now and the plainspeak of “had just gone inside” has been crafted into a metaphor that enlarges the image of the spider, almost as if Wright has wrought her divine:  “She had stepped inside the earth, to bathe herself.” Poetry asks for the world new and this is what Wright has given us.

In the concluding stanza of  “The Journey,” Wright alchemizes the scene of the spider in its web with the essence of himself, with the essence of us, the readers:

                                    The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind   
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely   
Will bury their own, don’t worry.

The journey of the spider through the “doorway” of her web has become the human journey into the spiritual world.

But go deeper, look at the micro changes of the letter to this poem and you realize that these transformations did not happen in the  “fell swoop” of some muse’s divine intervention, as we’d like to think, at least, as I’d certainly like to think. Instead, Wright is an excavator, taking pickaxe and pen many times, many years to his poems, whittling phrase and word from revision to revision, honing prose to poetry, sentence to line.

From one revision of “The Journey” to the next,  he changes “your bones” to “your body,” lengthens the line, “To let it go on blowing,” with the additional phrasing and repetition of “to step lightly, lightly,” which creates cadence in sound and personification in image.   He changes the original wording of “the ruins”  in the poem to “your ruins,” seemingly a nondescript change, until we realize that he once more implicates the reader, us, subsuming the spider as he gives the spider over to the human heart and its slow ravages.

    The small revisions Wright makes in his poems, that seem so undeserving of our attention, so often portend an avalanche of meaning.  At one time, “The Journey” closed this way: “All the way through your ruins, and not to care.” And then Wright changes “not to care” to “not to lose,” and expands this moment in  the poem:

                            All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely   
Will bury their own, don’t worry.

Surely, just simple words added. Just words for any sentence. But as Blunk points out, these changes adlib Jesus’s admonition in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus tells a man to follow him and the man says, “Lord let me go bury my father” and Jesus replies, “ Let the dead bury their own.” Wright, then, characteristically, follows this Biblical allusion with his ever-present colloquial nod to the plainspoken midwestern reader, “don’t worry.”

Nuance, allusion, metaphor, personification, the stepping out of prose into poetry: a little dusty spider a poet chanced upon during a walk turned into poetry writ large.  And a little journey, once upon a time on a cold dark day, turned into a little bit of light.

cabi in snow
a cabin in snow

Update from me: just mailed in my contract to Finishing Line Press for my upcoming chapbook, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic, inspired by, who else, James Wright and another favorite poet, Stanley Kunitz.

Hand (or On Finding the Prompts of Poetry)

I am thinking of the hand I found in Indiana, epicenter of this naturalist soul-to-be.  I was ten, younger, when I found the hand, laid it to rest in what I called the “dead box” we found in an ancient trunk in the loft of that massive red barn on the hillside where I watched cattle slain and ponies bred.

I was walking the fence line. It was summer. Dry weeds crumpled to dust along the foot and cow paths.  And then I saw it.  The hand on the ground. A perfect bone of a hand.  A fairy hand.

Fifty-one years I have kept the dead box and the hand and everything else I have found.  Years and years, in writing workshops, I have handed out each object to a stranger,  never wondering why I trusted these beautiful things from the world past with people I did not know. But always there is this giving back and forth — those who share my awe silent over the changed deserts of their linoleum desks. I am always astounded how poetry starts anywhere and takes you everywhere.

Bird’s nest so perfect
so round
woven of mane and tail hair
from my childhood ponies.
Owl pellet and yellow mouse teeth
and white bird claw and, oh,
the mollusk shell  
open-mouthed
where a petrified snail
curled inside.
And all the pale shells
of blue and speckled dust
I’ve lost and that Indiana flint
with yellow crystal
I found near the creek I barely
remember now except
a bulldozer tore that day
its red dirt. And here
the chrysalis
from my father’s pond
attached to a twig
since I was the girl
I will never be again–
what I swing and tremble
until it lives.

Poet Patricia Dubrava, in her blog, Holding the Light, posted a wonderful poem and poetry prompt and that’s what got me going! Hearing the Canadas.

My poetry chapbook, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic, will be published this spring by Finishing Line press. Just received the contract. More as I know it.

Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic to be published by Finishing Line Press

my cover image?

I just learned this week that my one and only chapbook, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from a Pandemic, will be published by Finishing Line Press as a semi-finalist for its Open Chapbook Competition 2020.  

I wrote Flying Beneath the Dog Star in the first spring of our pandemic during National Poetry Month, using many of the poetry prompts offered by NaPoWriMo (napowrimo.net).  These poems, written on the front porch of my cabin, are my journey through this strange and unknown world we are still living in.  Who knew when I sought solace at 9600 ft amidst the birds in my little spot above the Arkansas Valley, grieving over the deaths of eighteen hundred, that almost a year later we would have buried almost a half million in this country alone, including my mother, my aunt, and my uncle?   

Finishing Line Press received 402 entries and will publish the 14 poets who make up the list winner, shortlist finalists, and semifinalists. Congratulations to the fine poet, Maura Stanton, who won the competition for her chapbook, Interiors, and to all the other first rate women poets I will share this new journey with. And thank you to my sister, who was my inspiration for writing these poems that I hoped she would love, too.

I will share this publication journey as it continues to unfold.  You can find the (almost) title poem of my chapbook at Kingsview & Co, published by the lovely Michael A. King, editor: To the Three Ducks Flying Beneath the Dog Star. Other poems in the chapbook (and a few of my bird photos) will appear shortly in the Raw Earth Ink poetry and art collection, Creation and the Cosmos: A Poetic Anthology Inspired by Nature.

Stay Tuned!

Between the Heron and the Moss: a new book of poetry by my friend, Sarah M. Wells

“Between the Heron and the Moss is a modern spiritual woman’s rendering of the natural world that Hopkin’s poetry embraces: a world so infused by the spirit and grandeur of God that even the silhouette of a heron on a stick, the waxen leaf of a mayapple, or the seeds of sugar snap peas bear brilliant bursts of light, joy, and redemption to those who see to see. Wells beautifully melds the secular and the non-secular, the divine and the human, as she explores what tethers and frees the questioning heart.” –Kathryn Winograd, Author, “Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children”

What is it about this
one long stick outstretched
across the waters, this
one place within sight
of the roaring road
and passerbys like me , what is it
about this waterway
this time of day
in the dawn on the log
and in dusk, the shadows
across the glass, there he is now
spreading his wings and then
erect again as he waits
and changes space morning and evening
for me. Look look I point
for my daughter as we speed by, look,

did you see the great blue heron?

from Matins and Vespers, Between the Heron and the Moss

Heron near the South Platte River

Snow-Flakes

A poem for a snowy morning by Henry Wadsworth-Longfellow

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
      Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
            Silent, and soft, and slow
            Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
      Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
      In the white countenance confession,
            The troubled sky reveals
            The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
      Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
      Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
            Now whispered and revealed
            To wood and field.

Invitation to the Braided Essay and the DWPC Sunday Salon with me

If you’re interested in learning how to create the braided essay, a beautiful form of the lyric essay, join me for a working session on Sunday, Nov 1st at 3:00 p.m on Zoom. The Denver Woman’s Press Club have hosted these Sunday Salon throughout the Fall. If you are a DWPC member, you attend for free. Non-members pay $5 to attend. You must register and pay in advance. Please use these links below to register. (The photo links are static.)

MEMBERS REGISTRATION LINK:Register with this link to attend: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMscOCqrzMjG9VKYFyGSjJZDbnsqvlj1IBD

NON-MEMBERS Zoom info : There is a $5 fee to attend. Please register and pay in advance at  https://dwpconline.org/friends-of-the-dwpc/

Writing a Poem Against the “Lone Struggle”: The Gatherings Project

One of the surprises, soul-saving surprises, of this pandemic has been the creativity and generosity of care shown by so many, including the artists and writers of this world. The Gatherings Project is the brainstorm of artist Lynda Lowe: 56 boxes painted by professional artists and then sent out into the world to see what gifts they would gather. The boxes have now been sold and the profits donated to arts funding organization/s with well-established relief funds for creatives. Here’s the story of one box.

A few weeks ago at the Arvada Center, my friend Trine Bumiller handed me a cardboard shipping box tucked into a ragged shopping bag. Inside that box was a beautiful gold-painted wooden box with an orchid (erotic, as Trine described it) by the painter Fred Lisaius

Box painted by Fred Lisaius

And inside that golden box was Trine’s delicate rendering of a pine tree, inspired, I think, by her current gallery exhibit in Alaska, In Memoriam

Trine Bumiller piece

And a poem by the poet Todd Davis about his mother in a memory care unit.

News from Mulligan Hollow for My Mother in a Memory Care Unit in Waukesha, Wisconsin by Todd Davis

And I could add anything I wanted to continue this cycle of receiving and giving during this isolation of a pandemic. And so I did from the poems and photos I’ve been taking during this pandemic. Here, the swallows I watch along the old gravel pits by the South Platte River.

my contribution: To the Swallow This Spring at the Nest Box

There’s something truly beautiful about artist and writers collaborating to bring some solace and support in a time of sadness for so many. See all the Gatherings beautiful boxes. And go to the Arvada Center to see the inspiring Pink Progressions: Collaborations exhibit of paintings, poetry, sculpture, installations, videos, and performance celebrating the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th amendment.


Writers Studio at ACC book release reading and recording

ACC Writers Studio Hosts Andrea Mason and Jamey Trotter held a book release reading and recording for D. J. Lee and me on May 1st. We both read from our new books and answered a number of interesting questions about creative nonfiction and the writing process.

If you’re interested, you can hear our reading through the ACC Book Release Reading Link. Use the password: 9h%Ti$28

Celebrating April National Poetry Month

from Veronica Patterson, Loveland Poet Laureate

Thank you to Veronica Patterson, Loveland’s first poet Laureate, for sharing my two poems, “To Three Ducks Flying Beneath the Dog Star” and “Waking After Eighteen Hundred Dead,” as part of April’s National Poetry Month, on her Loveland Poet Laureate facebook site. 

TODAYS POET

Today’s National Poetry Month poet who read in Loveland as part of the Poets in the Park series is Kathryn Winograd. The poems presented are *TO THE THREE DUCKS FLYING BENEATH THE DOG STAR* and *WAKING AFTER EIGHTEEN HUNDRED DIE.* Of the latter, Kathryn writes, “This poem I wrote after the rising of the pink moon and one of our terrible nights of so many dead.”

TO THE THREE DUCKS FLYING BENEATH THE DOG STAR

So little you know, wild-winged
and unshaken beneath a dog star,
half-grazing the pines, the bare winter
aspen I stand in the dark wash of
waiting for the tip of a yellow moon.
In Ohio, girlhood, these April stars
circled a pond bull-dozed
by my father, a raft of cattail
where the red-wings spun their nests
above the scrim of caught water.
Tonight, in this near dark, so close
my hand could circle it,
Sirius hovers above the red factory
lights of Pueblo and the Sangre de Cristo
blue-washed in this hour.
I am cold in this wind, in this spine
of the Milky way,
these blue white stars named
for a bear or a lyre or a woman
weeping her dead into a river.
I think I was still half-sleeping
in a field of grass, in a haze of stars,
in a far and nameless country
you care nothing about,
burying and unburying those I love.
Such quiet, the mining trucks
to the north stalled
and the little generator of a shed
where no one lives in winter
shut down. And then, your wings,
almost, against the moon.
Why am I always alone,
searching for something beautiful?

WAKING AFTER EIGHTEEN HUNDRED DIE

Prayer began early
before the sterling jays
dove, then clattered
at our window,
flicked the blue dark
storm of their tails.
Our pale trees bow down
secretly
and a nuthatch
teeters upside down
from the post of the birdfeeder
I buried with stones
another spring,
his thin straight beak
tapping at the seed
I leave out all night.
My breath,
how lightly it floats
in this chill spring
like a delicate frost
of air
I can walk through.
I take the wood axe
from our tool shed
to split the old wood we felled
and stacked years past.
Last night I stood alone
in the deepening dusk,
in the silence,
as if I could rename each
splinter of star
I did not know.
And then the pink moon
soft as the fingertips
of the dead
slid over the mountain
and I lit fires
beneath a moon
of far blossoms.
How long ago it seems,
springs
when we could just count
the catkin on the budding aspen
and step so carefully
through the winter grass
so as not to crush
the white globes of the wind
flowers lifting themselves
from the cold earth.

~ Published in Colorado, Write On/The Colorado Sun

PROMPT: In her poem “Waking After Eighteen Hundred Die,” the poet does not write directly about this time of the corona virus. And yet the details and images of the poem embody it. Try writing about what you observe in the world now and letting the poem’s title, which the reader will return to, be an anchor.


Kathryn’s new book of essays, *Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children,* has recently been released. Here is a trailer for her new book: https://www.youtube.com/watch…

Here is a link to more about Kathryn Winograd and her work: kathrynwinograd.com.

From Veronica Patterson, Loveland Poet Laureate 

Write On, Colorado

You can read my poem , Waking after Eighteen Hundred Dead, by clicking on this image.

The Colorado Sun is asking all of you, anyone with the capacity and the willingness to commit your thoughts to print, to share your observations of the many aspects of this remarkable period. We’ll publish select pieces periodically — an ongoing time capsule of sorts — as we confront the challenges ahead of us.

Email your work to kevin@coloradosun.com.

Include your name, address, phone number and a photo. They ask you limit submissions to 1,000 words.