Juliana Gray

Summer Downpour

July 29, 2015

Photo courtesy Gabriel Santiago

Introduction by Ted Kooser: I’ve talked a lot in this column about poetry as celebration, about the way in which a poem can make an ordinary experience seem quite special. Here’s the celebration of a moment on a campus somewhere, anywhere. The poet is Juliana Gray, who lives in New York. I especially like the little comic surprise with which it closes.

Summer Downpour on Campus

When clouds turn heavy, rich
and mottled as an oyster bed,

when the temperature drops so fast
that fog conjures itself inside the cars,
as if the parking lots were filled
with row upon row of lovers,

when my umbrella veils my face
and threatens to reverse itself
at every gust of wind, and rain
lashes my legs and the hem of my skirt,

but I am walking to meet a man
who’ll buy me coffee and kiss my fingers—

what can be more beautiful, then,
than these boys sprinting through the storm,
laughing, shouldering the rain aside,
running to their dorms, perhaps to class,
carrying, like torches, their useless shoes?

Reprinted from “The Louisville Review,” (No. 59, Spring 2006) by permission of the author. Copyright © 2006 by Juliana Gray, whose most recent book of poetry is “The Man Under My Skin,” River City Publishing, 2005. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Everyday adventures

Five Ways to Cope When You're Overwhelmed

July 27, 2015

Photo courtesy Schicka

Every life has its ups and downs, its simple pleasures and everyday adventures. It also has times when an adventure becomes a bit more than “everyday”—when it challenges your skills and emotional resilience, stretches you beyond what you think you can do, and threatens to overwhelm you. This is how you grow.

Lately, overwhelm has been my constant companion. I’m hip deep in revitalizing my freelance writing—simultaneously taking online classes, building a writer’s website, and brainstorming ideas for pitches. There’s nothing at all curvaceous about my learning curve right now: it points straight up!

I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. We all have times in our lives when we take on big projects or face major life changes that leave us feeling exhausted and scared. Here are some ways I’ve been coping that might help you, too:

Do something related to your project every day, no matter how small. Make lists of ridiculously small steps and cross them off as you go. Build on those steps. If you’re learning something new, reread the information you read yesterday and you’ll probably understand it better. Experiment over and over with that new art technique, or set a timer and work on your project for 15 minutes. Just keep at it. Working on it every day helps to desensitize you to the scariness.

Sit with the uncomfortable feelings. Let them roll over you, and often you find they pass and you can get on with your work. If you’re especially worried, allow yourself a designated “worry time,” and whenever anxious thoughts arise, tell yourself that you’ll think about them during worry time.

Plan treats for yourself while you’re going through this experience. Choose something comforting for mind, body, or soul, something that refills your emotional well. Last week I had a massage and met a friend for lunch to offset the hours I spent struggling with my new website.

Keep your focus on the small step right in front of you. Don’t allow yourself to drift into thoughts of “what if,” fantasize about failure, obsess about the next 10 steps you’ll need to take, or even let your mind wander to the big picture. There will be time for that later. I’m encouraged by E.L. Doctorow’s words about writing: “[It] is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

When it all becomes too much, step aside before you reach the crying and/or cursing stage (or, even worse, the drinking stage). If I’m tired, or if I’ve been at it for several hours, little setbacks can seem insurmountable. When I start to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, I know it’s time to stop for a while. I’ll return when I’m feeling rested and energetic again.

Even though I’ve felt overwhelmed lately, I’ve also felt more energetic and excited than I have for a while. I think the challenge is worth the struggle—and that makes me happy.

When you’re faced with a big, overwhelming project or experience, how do you cope?


Never Regret

July 22, 2015

I regret nothing.

“Never regret. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.”
—Victoria Holt

Comfort zones

Summer Rerun: Why You Should Do Things Badly

July 20, 2015

Note: I'm taking a more relaxed approach to blogging this summer, so occasionally I'm going to rerun a previous post. I hope you enjoy this one, from 2013.

When I started writing this post, I had just gotten back from riding my bike for the first time in…years. My kind husband recently cleaned out the garage, brought my bike down from the ceiling where it had been suspended, pumped up my flat tire, lubed the chain and adjusted the seat so it’s just right. I finally wheeled it out onto the nature trail, and while I hadn’t exactly forgotten how to ride a bike, let’s just say that I didn’t look very graceful doing it. There was some irrational weaving and one or two interesting experiments with gears and braking, but soon I was pedaling happily down the trail. I wasn’t very skilled, but at least I didn’t hit a tree.

The Great Bike Ride was, I hope, the first of many rides, each one getting a little smoother. I admit that on this first ride, I felt kind of silly. I *should* be able to ride a bike, right? I learned long (long) ago. But right now, I do it kind of badly. And that’s OK. Doing things badly is important, and you should be doing things badly, too. Want to know why?

If you never try anything you’re not already good at, you’ll never learn anything new.

Maybe you’d like to learn to sketch, try salsa dancing, or bake the perfect pie. If you’ve never tried it before, it’s likely that you won’t be good. It’s the rare person who is good at something the very first time he/she tries it (and you have my permission to hate those people). If you never step outside your comfort zone and risk doing things badly, you’ll never know if you even like to samba or how creative your sketches can be. (And if your goal is the perfect pie, please call me—I’m willing to taste your experiments.)

Once you’ve tried something for the first time and you decide you like it, guess what: you might still do it badly for awhile. Many, many worthwhile and satisfying things take time to master. The point is, if you’re not willing to do something badly, at least for a little while, you’ll never know just how good you can be.

For me, horseback riding has been a prime example of doing things badly. I recently saw a video of my first ride on Tank, and frankly I was appalled (and I felt sorry for Tank). In the years I’ve had him, I’ve taken many riding lessons and spent hours practicing, and I know I’m a much better rider than I was then. Thankfully, I didn’t give up when I found that good riding is much harder than it appears.

When you try your new things (and I write this to myself as much as to you), be patient and don’t be embarrassed or self-conscious about doing things badly. Realize you’re learning and expanding your horizons. Be proud of your badness for badness, eventually, leads to goodness.

What would you like to do badly?

Still practicing... (Photo by Holly Bryan)

Chelsea Woodard

Plucked From Memory

July 15, 2015

Introduction by Ted Kooser: Surely, some of you have paged through an old book and come upon a dried flower, fragile as a spider web, the colors faded. Here’s a fine poem about pressing flowers by Chelsea Woodard of New Hampshire, from her book Vellum.

The Flower Press

It was the sort of thing given to little girls:
sturdy and small, round edged, wooden and light.
I stalked the pasture’s rough and waist-high grass
for worthy specimens: the belle amid the mass,
the star shaming the clouds of slighter,
ordinary blooms. The asters curled

inside my sweat-damp palms, as if in sleep. Crushed
in the parlor’s stifling heat, I pried
each shrinking petal back, and turned the screws.
But flowers bear no ugly bruise,
and even now fall from the brittle page, dried
prettily, plucked from memory’s hush.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2014 by Chelsea Woodard, “The Flower Press,” from Vellum, (Able Muse Press, 2014). Poem reprinted by permission of Chelsea Woodard and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2015 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.