Poem of the Week, by Gaius Valerius Catullus

Last week in the class I’m teaching we went around the room and each student recited a poem from memory. One man recited the below poem, one I had never heard before, and at first I thought he himself had written it; it was so brief and raw and real. But no, it’s a poem by Catullus, who died in Verona more than two thousand years ago at the age of 30. I drove home thinking about this poem, and then I looked up Catullus and have been reading his work, the little that we have from the one manuscript unearthed long after his death, ever since. The more things change, the more they don’t, even over thousands of years.

Poem 85
– Gaius Valerius Catullus

I hate and I love
Why do I, you ask ?
I don’t know, but it’s happening
and it hurts.

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
    nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
(In the original Latin)


For more information on Catullus, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Javier Etchevarren

I read this poem the other day, my first time reading this poet. The scenes being described were so ordinary but slightly weird, like the image of a mother waiting at school with an apple pie for her grown son. I was zipping right along, happy that the family in the poem had come to this peaceful time in their lives together, the sadnesses and strain behind them, and then I came to the ending. And thought, This is one of those poems that does what poems can do.

– Javier Etchevarren, translated from the Spanish by Jesse Lee Kercheval

Mama works less
and hugs me more.
She waits for me
at the school doors
with an apple pie
(no matter that I
am 30 plus years old).

My older brother
has not lost his job.
he has quit smoking
in our bedroom.

My middle brother
has stopped breaking
his back for others
and uncorks an expensive wine.

My father
—who has quit drinking—
returns to the house
and asks forgiveness.
We forgive him.

We smile for the picture
while weeping with joy:
all my family reunited
in this poem.


For more information on Javier Etchevarren, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Ernest Hilbert

Once when my son was little I overheard him and some of his friends whispering in the doorway where they had snuck up to watch me type. “Is your mom the fastest typer in the whole world?” one of them said. “Yup,” my son said, “she is.” When it comes to typing all I want is speed, because then my fingers can outrace my thoughts and spin words out without thinking. But when it comes to cooking and quilting and gardening, slowness is what matters, physical labor that absorbs hands and muscles and lets thoughts wander free. (As I wrote that last sentence it just occurred to me that maybe speed and slowness are actually the same thing. Same coin, flip sides.) Poem of the Week, by Ernest Hilbert.

– Ernest Hilbert

A song for those who learn forgotten, slow
skills, crafts submerged long past by massed commerce,
by hard, dark, oily machines, and the din
of duplicates shipped by the millions, stowed
in cavernous depots to be dispersed
to each home, used once, and then binned.
This is for those who weave by hand, who brew
their own suds, and roll their own smokes, hammer
together shelves, print on presses, plant gardens
in vacant lots, raise beams, fire pots, the few
who challenge the swift, transient tenor
of the age, the lonely sincere wardens,
the last, noble pull of old ways restored,
valued and unwanted, admired and ignored.

For more information on Ernest Hilbert, please click here: here.

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Poem of the Week, by Brenda Shaughnessy

The past few weeks I’ve been obsessively reading the Neapolitan novels, by the Italian writer Elana Ferrante. They’re a magnificent trilogy (soon to be a quartet) about a friendship between two girls (who grow into older women by the end of the three novels). Each novel is big and fat and dense and I can’t even explain what, besides the writer’s psychological acuity, makes them so compulsively readable. Finished the second yesterday and immediately walked to Magers & Quinn to buy the third. What do the Ferrante novels have to do with this poem by Brenda Shaughnessy? I can’t explain that either, other than that there’s a stanza in there about mothers and daughters that throws me right into the dark heart of the dark star that makes that kind of love so, so, so whatever it is. Crucial. Essential. Neverending.

I Have a Time Machine, by Brenda Shaughnessy

But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
at a rate of one second per second,which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.

But I manage to get there, time after time, to the next
moment and to the next.

Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keep zipping ahead—
well, not zipping—And if I try

to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall into space, unconscious,

then desiccated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.

There’s a window, though. It shows the past.
It’s like a television or fish tank

but it’s never live, it’s always over.
The fish swim in backward circles.

Sometimes it’s like a rearview mirror, another chance
to see what I’m leaving behind,

and sometimes like blackout, all that time
wasted sleeping.

Myself age eight, whole head burnt with embarrassment
at having lost a library book.

Myself lurking in a candled corner expecting
to be found charming.

Me holding a rose though I want to put it down
so I can smoke.

Me exploding at my mother who explodes at me
because the explosion

of some dark star all the way back struck hard
at mother’s mother’s mother.

I turn away from the window, anticipating a blow.
I thought I’d find myself

an old woman by now, traveling so light in time.
But I haven’t gotten far at all.

Strange not to be able to pick up the pace as I’d like;
the past is so horribly fast.

​For more information about Brenda Shaughnessy, please click here.
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The Conjuring of “Firefly Hollow”

Firefly Hollow coverMy new novel for children, Firefly Hollow, with its enchanting illustrations by Christopher Denise, has been in the world for one week as of today. Except not really, seeing as it took a good six years to conjure itself.  (This book is evidence that someone born fast, impatient and jumpy can, over many years, learn the art of patience. Lord love a duck, this thing took its own sweet time.)

The final version was written with a little wooden cricket, a poem (Spring and Fall, to a Young Child), and the film adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are” propped next to me on the table. Since I long ago trained myself out of both superstition and muse-invoking rituals, you know it had to be a tough slog.

For the inside scoop on the process, please click here.

I will be touring around this fall, giving readings and doing signings, and I would truly love to meet any of you who can make any of the dates. Here they are so far, and I’ll update as necessary.

Sunday, August 30: The Toadstool Bookstore in Peterborough, NH, signing copies, 10 am-noon

Sat, October 3 – Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, VT, reading and signing, 4:00 PM

Sun, October 4 – Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne, VT, time TBA

Mon, October 5 – Flying Pig school events in Shelburne, VT

Sunday, October 11: Copperfield’s Books, Petaluma, CA, reading and signing, 2 PM

Monday, October 12: Books Inc., San Francisco, school events

Tuesday, October 13: Book Passage, San Francisco, reading, 10 AM, and school event, 12:30 pm

Monday, October 19: Anderson’s Bookstore, Chicago, reading and signing, 7:00 PM

Tuesday, October 20: The Bookstall, Chicago, school events, morning and afternoon

Friday, October 23: Whale of a Tale, Los Angeles, school events, morning and afternoon

Saturday, October 24: Southern California Independent Booksellers Association conference, North Hollywood, 6 pm appearance

Sunday, November 1: Westport Public Library, Westport, CT, I’m giving a talk, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer,” to kick off National Novel Writing Month, 2-3 pm

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Poem of the Week, by Denise Levertov

At a dinner party the other night some friends asked why my mother, born and raised in Manhattan, had lived her entire adult life in the rural foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. I told them she had always wanted to live in the country, that she had spent childhood summers at a camp where her mother had a job. Like my mother, I’m both country and city, but when things get too worrisome I recite poems like this one to myself. Which might mean that at some level, country wins out.

A Reward
–  Denise Levertov

Tired and hungry, late in the day, impelled
to leave the house and search for what
might lift me back to what I had fallen away from,
I stood by the shore waiting.
I had walked in the silent woods:
the trees withdrew into their secrets.
Dusk was smoothing breadths of silk
over the lake, watery amethyst fading to gray.
Ducks were clustered in sleeping companies
afloat on their element as I was not
on mine. I turned homeward, unsatisfied.
But after a few steps, I paused, impelled again
to linger, to look North before nightfall-the expanse
of calm, of calming water, last wafts
of rose in the few high clouds.
And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just offshore on his post,
took up his vigil.
If you ask
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.

For more information on Denise Levertov, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Andrew Marvell

This past week, while working on a new novel, the line “Had we but world enough and time” kept appearing in my head, like subtitles across the bottom of a movie in another language. Because I wasn’t 1) an English major and b) am a dunce (take your choice; #1 is true but #2 is probably more true), I had to look up the line. Then I sat here reading and re-reading the beautiful poem from which it comes. Familiar lines like “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” are now weaving themselves throughout the new novel. Thank you, Mr. lived-and-died-so-long-ago Marvell.

To His Coy Mistress
– Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

For more information on Andrew Marvell, please click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Jim Daniels

Sometimes, in the kitchen putting together dinner for a bunch of people, it feels like a carefully choreographed dance – stir this time that preheat the oven lay out the ingredients bring this to room temperature put that in the freezer move this pot to the back burner remember the left front doesn’t work scrub the table get out the plates. On and on. You’re moving within a three-foot radius and every movement is tight and controlled. We are all, every one of us, so good at so many things, and we do those things over and over and over. Why are there not more poems by plumbers and welders and daycaregivers and quilters and tree trimmers? So much applause goes to the public and famous and not the short-order cook, when I know that what I’ll remember, and love, and miss when the time comes, is this: the beautiful ordinariness of days.

Short-order Cook
– Jim Daniels

An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep frier
and they pop pop spit spit…
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point-
They are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fries done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
“Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries!”
They look at me funny.
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success,
thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

For more information on Jim Daniels, please click here: here.

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Poem of the Week, by Tom Sleigh

This past week I was at a lake with parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and children, the grownups piloting boats around for hours on end so the kids could fish or waterski or tube behind it. Endless making of lunches, endless baiting of hooks. Endless how to wakeboard, how to waterski, how to play poker. Endless patience. Thirty years from now, these same future grownups will be hauling a new batch of kids around behind a different boat. I thought about the adults in my own childhood who taught me how to cook, how to sew, how to stack wood, how to tell a story, how to grow a garden. One day your father’s hauling you up the sledding hill on the toboggan, the next your eyes are glazing over as you teach your kids how to play Candyland, the next you’re sitting in a bar with them drinking Guinness. This small-but-huge poem by Tom Sleigh chokes me up when I read it, for so many reasons.


The sidelong whiplash of his arm sent the boomerang
soaring, pushing the sky to the horizon
until the blade just hung there, a black slash on the sun

so far away it seemed not to move at all
before it came whirling back larger and larger:
would it hit him, would he die — and you ducked down,

terrified, clinging to his thigh, its deathspin
slowing as it coptered softly down and he snatched it
from the air. How you loved that rush of fear,

both wanting and not wanting him to feel how hard
you clung, just the same as when he’d float you
weightless across the pond while waves slapped

and shushed and bickered, his breath loud in your ear …
and after he dried you off, he’d lift you onto his shoulders
and help you shove your head through a hole in the sky.


For more information on Tom Sleigh,  please click here.

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August 1 Creative Writing Kickstart class!

Greetings, friends, Minnesotans and countrypeople,

There are still openings available in my one-day Creative Writing Kickstart workshop on Saturday morning, August 1 in Uptown Minneapolis. The focus of the Kickstart is writing from life: where you are now, where you were, and points in between. We’ll do several brief writings, discuss some short published works (provided) and talk about various aspects of craft and process –maybe dialogue, maybe tense and point of view, maybe some other things– in terms of what makes great writing great.

The class will be intensive but fun and low-key. It’s designed for writers of ALL abilities, experience levels and genres. If you’re a longtime writer in need of a boost or someone who’s always had an interest in writing but never known how to sit down and get started, join us!

Limited to fifteen. I’d love to see you there. If you’re interested, please email me at alison_mcghee@hotmail.com to reserve a spot.

Time: 9 am-1 pm
Place: 3554 BRYANT AVENUE SOUTH, MINNEAPOLIS, MN 55408. (The Community Gathering Room in Uptown Minneapolis, right on the corner of Bryant and 36th, between Bogart’s Donuts and Gigi’s Cafe.) Parking on-street. Community Room.
Cost: $75, including hand-outs, payable via check, Paypal, or cold hard cash.
Bring: yourself, a pen and a notebook or your quiet laptop. Lots of beverages and tasty treats and sandwiches and salads available at Bogart’s and Gigi’s.

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