Category Archives: Writers on Writing

Weeping Genius: Poems I Love

I’m in perpetual awe of poetry. It’s a form of writing I’ve always been pretty dreadful at. I tend to prefer long, meandering confessional-type writing, with lots of run-ons and subordination, and poetry usually doesn’t have the patience for that sort of thing. It’s economical. It’s distilled. It catches thin, corner-of-the-eye moments you might otherwise overlook if you’re in a hurry on a busy day. But if you slow down a moment, look up and see what’s around you… you see them everywhere.

The trick is getting them down the way you see them.

Here are a few poems, poets, or books of poems I re-read regularly… especially during frigid-wet weather like we’re experiencing now in San Francisco.

Robert Hass, Sun Under Wood
The verse in Sun Under Wood is both crisp and lilting. My pick: “Shame: An Aria”

I had the immense pleasure of taking Professor Hass’ American Poetry class when I was at Berkeley. He was the U.S. Poet Laureate back in the 90’s, and has since won a Pulitzer for his 2008 book, Time and Materials. A gentle, vividly-smart man, he was the only professor that signed autographs before class. He’s also the man who encouraged me to write a book about Poe.

Speaking of Poe…

I’m far more interested in the literary historicism of Poe’s life and the lives of those surrounding his, but truth told, Poe was a fine poet. “A Dream Within a Dream” was first published in 1849, the year of his death, and asks the question of what is real in this life. I suspect for Poe, the confusion between lush dream states and arid realities was real, and he manages to capture his query in the prettiest of ways.

A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Speaking of dreams… (obvious and bad segue way… sorry)

Pablo Neruda destroys me. He destroys anyone in his path. He’s the undisputed master of love poems. I was sent this poem back in 2004 by a man I was dating. I ended up marrying him. The marriage didn’t work out, but like this poem, the most romantic moments in life are often shorter than we expect.

The Queen

I have named you queen.
There are taller than you, taller.
There are purer than you, purer.
There are lovelier than you, lovelier.
But you are the queen.

When you go through the streets
No one recognizes you.
No one sees your crystal crown, no one looks
At the carpet of red gold
That you tread as you pass,
The nonexistent carpet.

And when you appear
All the rivers sound
In my body, bells
Shake the sky,
And a hymn fills the world.

Only you and I,
Only you and I, my love,
Listen to me.

There are so many more, but I’ll save them for another time. Read a poem you love today.


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Punctuation… A Tragic Love Story

Oh Punctuation, how you baffle us! Your vexing ways make us say the silliest things. Sometimes coy, often confusing… you leave us sitting in from of our monitors with knitted brows, wondering what in the hell we did wrong.

Unpopular Punctuation: The Marks You Probably Avoid

Now in creative work, anything goes. Poems, short fiction… do what you like. This poem by J.P. Dancing Bear uses colons in an especially cool way. Punctuation is usually about timing… about when a reader receives an idea. “Not Persephone” uses colons to parse out moments of thought, but show how they all pull out from the first line. The effect is pretty and rather brilliant.

But in business writing the enterprise requires more thought. Proper and consistent use of punctuation affords strong, crisp writing. So for those of us who are not poets: Lisa Kusko has a super-popular blog for business writing. Her tips apply to just about anyone trying to hone their craft, or simply not sound ridiculous. Knowing what to use where and when helps, so check it out!

Unpopular Punctuation: The Marks You Probably Avoid.

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Filed under The English Department, Writers on Writing

top five cliches that drive me insane

Overused expressions make me feral-cat crazy. They represent muddled, default thinking, and really don’t say anything important. When I read a cliche, my attention span automatically shuts down on that writer. If she doesn’t care enough to write something in an specific, clear, or original way, why should I care about the message? Perhaps at one time these phrases meant something, but in the interest of inspired communication, I hereby request that these blurbs be strip mined from the English-speaking world, stuffed into a biohazard barrel, and buried somewhere out in the Nevada desert.

1) “nip it in the bud”

I don’t like the word nip…  who nips? Unless you’re a 19th century dandy boy holding a brandy snifter this phrase should be prohibited.

2) “on the same page”

As Twitter artist Kelly Oxford points out, you never want to be on the same page as someone who says “we’re on the same page.” Over-assuming and annoying.

3) “fell through the cracks”

Screams either lack of accountability or a laziness to describe what actually happened. Why not just shrug and stare at the floor instead?

4) “spinning your wheels”

Tired, and for some reason reminds me of the Flintstones. 

5) “pushing the envelope”

I never understood this one so I looked it up. Turns out it has nothing to do with stationery, but is a math allusion. Math! How many times have you heard this and knew, albeit vaguely, what the person meant, even though the expression itself made no sense to you?

Dammit. Math has no place in writing. Everyone knows that…


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Eliot on Poetry…

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The SF “Dash-eel” Hammett Tour

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”

Sam Spade “The Maltese Falcon”

If you have a free afternoon, ten bucks, and any interest in San Francisco literary history, go on Don Herron’s super-informative Dashiell (pronounced Dash-eel, not Dash-shell) Hammett walkabout. I know, geeky. But seriously. Go. Don was especially cool and super up on his mystery fiction, giving proper props to Hammett as the second most influential mystery writer in America. Because we all know who came first. When he asked if anyone knew, me and a pasty, slightly crazed Goth guy shot our hands in the air yelping “Oh oh oh!!!  Poe! It was Poe. POE!” When Don cautiously acknowledged that we were correct, we shared a knowing smirk and made fun of the east coast tourists who said Chandler. Ha! Losers…

Anyway, I decided to go for several reasons… among them:

1) I couldn’t write and needed to get out of the house.

2) Next to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (“Can I call you Fred, dahling?”) and “Shawshank”, it’s one of my all-time favorite movies.

3) I wrote a paper about misogyny and gender play on Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and love the book more than the film, which is saying something.

Now this is tour isn’t for slouches. It’s four hours long and you walk several miles (mostly in the Tenderloin) but you are rewarded with amazing bits of SF historical insight.

Like 620 Eddy Street… a very pretty building in the Tenderloin where Hammett lived with his wife and daughters… he paid about 45.00 a month for rent. He also rented a room down the street (it’s a playground now) when his tuberculosis acted up.

Then he lived up the street on Post… in the top floor, right corner apartment. That’s where he wrote about the black bird… this is walking distance from my apartment. Cool no? No?! That’s what I thought. Hell yes it’s cool. Unfortunately this apartment was taken by a wealthy fellow who has since restored it and no longer lets people visit it. Boo.

Top right corner…

Now the coolest part was when we got to the plaque on Bush Street, across from Dashiell Hammett Place, know where I’m talking about? Near Tunnel Top and the Green Door Massage Parlour?

Well, as it turns out, the Green Door wasn’t there back in 1941… that whole building wasn’t there… and you can see where the moldings change and the cement is new. Before, it was a steep ditch where Brigid O’Shaugnessey shot Archer in the film. And the plaque gets you close to the spot, but if you go down the alley, you get right to the spot where Bogart raced down at 2a.m. after getting the call Archer was murdered. Standing there, with Don and Goth Boy and the dumb Chandler tourists, I just kept thinking… I wonder if Bogart was a diva on set. His freak outs would have happened right about… here. I then realized the group was watching me laugh out loud to myself so I made an excuse and awkwardly departed.

Just kidding. Not really.

But… considering he wasn’t deemed leading man material at this point in his career, it’s unlikely. He was still coming up in his career and hardly a star before “Maltese”. In fact, he’s considered the actor, whilst donning sport-dork white shorts and tennies, responsible for coining the phrase “Tennis anyone?” As a part-time, hack actor, I find solace in knowing that Bogart had to play small time dork parts before hitting his iconic status with this film.

Mr. Animal Magnetism. Tennis anyone? Gotta start somewhere…

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The Philosophy Store

How funny it is, and tragic, the way most people invision the worth of a degree in the humanities. I remember when I graduated from Cal and the commencement speaker suggested that getting an English degree was like “planting an existential question mark on your forehead.” He was a writer in Los Angeles, a successful one at that, and though excited by the day, I remember being irked by that remark. I remembered this moment after reading an interesting article by English professor Mark Bauerlein on the cost of literary research.  Dr. Bauerlein even did a financial analysis on academic literary output, and while I agree with his argument to a point, it left me with that same irksome feeling.

For so long now, non-humanistic studies have been the focus of the academy. Universities put up state-of-the-art MBA facilities and add flat panels to their science wings, while the English and History folks huddle together in drafty, aged classrooms. I get it, resources go where the money is at. I suspect one of the reasons literary folks are often wary of new technology is because it’s the industry associated with the marginalization of literary studies. Why would an academic embrace something that pushes out her craft, symbolically, economically, even socially? And Dr. Bauerlein is right in that English departments can’t afford to bury their heads and pretend this negative cash bleed isn’t happening. But I wonder if we just aren’t getting the message out; maybe we need to create a marketing movement for the humanities? I don’t pretend to have the answer, but saying something about the value of English matters, I think.

One of my brilliant instructors turned our class onto a beautifully-written article by Mark Slouka on the ways in which humanities gets a bad rap, and how that devalued reputation has become the lynchpin for the sinking American educational system. Slouka discusses how “our [American] orthodoxy is economic” and without a cost-benefit analysis that makes sense, the intangible product of clear thinking becomes a luxury for which our citizens are no longer willing to throw down. Many, if not most Americans think like Slouka’s mother-in law, who when hearing her future son-in-law was earning a Ph.D in literature, queried: “A doctor of philosophy,” she said. “What’re you going to do, open a philosophy store?”

Like the English folks have been saying, I suspect along with the rest of the humanities crew, the value is not in product but in process. Slouka says it best:

The case for the humanities is not hard to make, though it can be difficult—to such an extent have we been marginalized, so long have we acceded to that marginalization—not to sound either defensive or naive. The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be. Their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their “success” something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.

They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.

The value of clear thought, of cogent reasoning, of critical thinking is in a dire state if we cannot see the value of an education in English. It’s a critical underpinning for the educated, and its absence creates consequences far more devastating than typos. In The Demon-Haunted World, non-English major and cosmologist Carl Sagan closes his opus with the following:

If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.





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Sunday Quote: Checking in with Walt

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