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Criticism

Probable Impossibilities: The Poetry of Attention

The art of writing a poem is, at its heart, the art of paying attention. And the reading of a poem should make the reader feel like she has attended to something. Alan Lightman’s stunning book, Probable Impossibilities is a literary performance of sustained attention, focused on some of the most difficult mysteries of the universe. Lightman turns his attention to the quantum field, to the flow of time, and then turns his attention to attention itself. 

Life is what we pay attention to, and attention is, at its core, the rhythmic firing of neurons. Thought is rhythm. “Evidently what we perceive as ‘paying attention’ to something originates, at the cellular level, in the synchronized firing of a group of neurons, whose rhythmic electrical activity rises above the background chatter of the vast neuronal crowds.” The neuroscientist Robert Desimone calls this the “synchronized chanting” of the brain. 

Just as six metronomes will come into synch with one another through the vibrations transmitted through the board on which they stand, so the mind seems capable of coming into synch with the symphony of nature, bringing what is outside into accord with what is within. The brain doesn’t just chant, it sings the music of the spheres.

Imagination is, after all, a form of attention, and Lightman revels in pushing his imagination to its limits. “Standing at that boundary is an exhilarating experience,” he writes. He explains: “Einstein once wrote, ‘The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art true science.’” One of Lightman’s “probable impossibilities” is imagination.

The poetic act is to stand at the boundary of the comprehensible and incomprehensible and to write from the island of the comprehensible toward the ocean of incomprehensibility. True poetic composition is a spiritual experience. But you don’t need to contemplate the universe to achieve these spiritual heights. The ordinary observation is enough. What stuns about Lightman’s prose in Probable Impossibilities is its ability to simultaneously marvel about the mysteries of forward moving time, and then to settle into the ordinary beauty of walking along a beach in Maine. The poetic can take us to the stars; but more often it can be found in a simple cup of tea. 

And perhaps that’s the miracle of the universe, the miracle of the poetic. The heart and mind can travel through infinite space, but the real miracle might be closer to home, in the smaller spaces: a glass of orange juice on your breakfast table, an ant walking across a leaf, sunshine on the skin, a smile. 

Lightman “confesses” that he doesn’t believe in miracles. He doesn’t believe in “another kind of reality that exists outside the physical universe but that can enter our time and space at will.” And yet, he believes in a quantum reality where “ghostlike photons pop out of the vacuum into being, enjoy their lives for perhaps a billionth of a billionth of a second, and then disappear again.”

How can one stand before the impossibility of the quantum field where photons can be formed ex nihilo and not admit that there are forces that cannot be explained by science alone?

Lightman writes about the scientist Owen Gingrich, a man who believes “‘that our physical universe is somehow wrapped within a broader and deeper spiritual universe, in which miracles can occur.’” I’m not so sure about that. But I couldn’t help feeling like there was some kind of mysterious connection between the rhythms of the photons, the rhythms of the quantum field, and the rhythms of consciousness itself. If the sum of these rhythms isn’t something like spirit, I don’t know what is. 

But even without admitting spiritual mystery, Lightman gravitates toward the mystery of life’s specialness: “Of all the zillions of atoms and molecules in the universe, we have the privilege of being composed of those very, very few atoms that have joined together to make living matter. We exist in the one-billionth of one-billionth. We are that one grain of sand in the desert.” 

This uniqueness is not trivial. Lightman writes about the philosopher Spinoza who believed that the substance of the universe was God and God was the universe. Everything in this manner was connected though God, with God as a common denominator. 

Probable Impossibility. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Probable Impossibility. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

To think of the atoms that make up life forms as distinct from anything else seems like an error. Perhaps consciousness, like rocks, and sun, and gravity, is a natural consequence of the unfolding. We are not distinct, but connected by whatever spirit moves the sun and other stars. 

The greatest of all “probable impossibilities” is consciousness itself. The miracle of attention woven into the warp of universal change.

And in that way, our changing is inevitable and guided perhaps not ourselves, but by the forces all around us, acting in beautiful synchronicity. Our poetry may also be so guided. When I am writing well, it feels that way; it doesn’t feel like I wrote this or that sentence, but that I came into rhythm with the wider world around me and found the words to describe it perfectly. It wasn’t change at all. It was there all along, waiting for me to come into synch with it. True poetry only needs our fullest attention.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Recovery Reading: We Are the Luckiest

If you’ve done any reading about recovery, as I have, you begin to see certain themes appear over and over. Most recovery reading takes the protagonist or narrator through a direct confrontation with denial, followed by a rigorous embrace of the truth. The truth is an elusive life raft. But it’s the only life raft when you’re on the island of denial.

Life in recovery can seem like another world, another continent, impossible to reach. I should know. I lived in denial for many years. In some ways, I still live there. Crossing the ocean of truth is difficult. The waves are big, the sea stormy. The boat leaks tears and takes in water. The winds of emotion threaten to sink you. You look up to the stars, but find yourself under strange skies, illuminated by constellations you’ve never seen before. You notice guilt and shame sinking lower in the horizon, while constellations half obscured for years rise higher and higher, constellations like joy, peace, and hope. These are new maps, and they take time to get accustomed to. The sky is still strange, and the currents unknown. You see white terns carrying seeds and plants in their beaks, offering evidence of new land. You still feel very much alone, but if you look down into the water, the depths without end give way to a bottom much brighter and more beautiful than you imagined. You find life there: corals, and turtles, and fish. The sea becomes friendlier. You sense land. 

If you’re similarly adrift, some of the best recovery reading I’ve encountered is Laura McKowen’s We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life. McKowen is no Melville of the recovery narrative. Her prose is crisp and clear. Her logic sound. She’s more like a Hemingway. Recovery might very well be an elusive fish that could also serve as an allegory for the human condition.

While few have experienced the vicious cycle of addiction, all of us know what it’s like to want something badly, so badly it interferes with other things in life. Whether it’s a relationship gone wrong, troubled eating, overwork, or internet fixation, we all have had a taste of desire turned toxic.

Addiction is a lonely island. When you’re on it, there’s nothing else, but you and the island.

McKowen offers a story about what lies beyond the island of addiction, what happens when you cross the ocean. While her memoir is specifically about alcohol addiction, it is a story that transcends the recovery narrative. It is applicable to anyone suffering from any kind of addiction. For some it’s a personal struggle with food, or phone addiction, or social media fixation, or love addiction, or sex, or alcohol, or drugs, or money, or work, or exercise, or gambling.

Every addiction obscures a fear. For me, alcohol and toxic relationships were a life preserver that protected me from the fear of being alone. And God, I was scared to be alone. 

Recovery. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Recovery. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

A Culture of Addiction

I truly believe that the fabric of our very culture is woven from the warp of addiction. Capitalism tells us that we should not be satisfied, and the terms of the bargain make satisfaction impossible. We will always need the new upgrade, whether that’s a better phone, a better body, a better life. There’s always a better vacation, a better job, better friends, a better city. We need to change our bodies and our minds to feel better: there’s always a better cocktail, a better workout, a better high, a better phone, a better partner to be had.

Peace, kindness, care, simple joy, and generosity aren’t commodities that can be sold and bought. They require hard work, time, and sometimes pain and discomfort. They require sacrifice. 

On the other side of my abusive relationship with alcohol and other people, I saw only loneliness. 

Resistance to change is the resistance to believe that more can be true. 

For a long time, I couldn’t see the other truths that existed in the space beyond my addictions. Setting boundaries with alcohol and other people would likely result in abandonment, pain, and loneliness, but when you’re on the island, you can’t see that beyond the island of denial and the ocean of truth, there’s a bigger life, with continents of joy, hope, and peace.

Our culture offers many escape hatches, many ways to numb out, and succumb to the easy dopamine rush of a cocktail, Instagram scroll, Tinder fuck, all-nighter, and if none of that works, Netflix binge and chill.

Love cannot exist alongside the numbing. Joy cannot exist with the numbing. There is no hope in the numbing. There is no peace there. There is just the numbing.

Leaving behind the island of addiction and denial is hard. 

McKowen writes eloquently about how difficult it is to abandon the island. Pure will alone cannot do it. Integrity is difficult. It requires self-accountability, but also accountability to other people. Leaving the island of addiction requires a kind of grace that can only come about when we reach out.

In active addiction, I lived in two worlds at once. There was the toxic life of drinking and dysfunctional relationships, and the life I was pretending to live right beside it, a life of peace, love, and hope.

Two worlds cannot exist in one place and time.

How do we allow the worlds to merge? The truth is the bridge. It’s a hard bridge to cross. As you cross it, it cuts away the veils and the softeners of experience, those numbing narcotics you’ve used to cover up shame, and guilt, and fear, and pain. But the other side is freedom and clarity. The other side is an honest life. For those of us living in the lie, the honest life is alien—we’re back in the boat under strange stars. But I’ve been there before. I know what an honest life feels like. The stars there are so bright, they light you up; they light everything up. 

McKowen writes that “the truth is alchemical. It transmutes the bitterness of pain and dishonesty and shame into something else, something we can actually live and stand on… It is also difficult to do because—for many of us—it’s in conflict with how we’ve learned to get our needs met. But the first step here is to be real with yourself. You don’t have to show your guts to anyone else, not yet. Acknowledge the truth about how you feel about the thing you are going through and leave nothing unsaid. Whisper it into the dark, say it in a prayer, write it down on paper—whatever. Just get it out of your body.”

Perhaps the best kind of recovery reading isn’t other people’s stories. Perhaps the best kind of recovery reading is the story we write ourselves.

I often write about how to become a better writer. I’ve committed my life to the practice of writing. I went to Columbia University to study writing, and I earned my MFA there. I make my living as a writer. I’ve taught writing. But there’s something more important than theory or writing classes or even practice. There’s telling the truth. And maybe I’ve missed that mark recently. The beautiful thing about telling the truth, about getting in that boat and leaving the island, about crossing the bridge, is that it starts with just one step, one paddle, one sentence, and you don’t have to start by telling anyone else, no, not yet. It starts by telling yourself the truth. I was drinking again. I was in an abusive relationship. My life had become unmanageable.

Dear reader, I’m working on the truth. It’s the best I can do.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Breathing Techniques from James Nestor’s Breath

The idea of learning breathing techniques seems paradoxical. Why bother learning techniques for something that happens automatically and without thinking? Yet, nothing is so easy and complicated as breathing. The very same breathing that happens without thought can also be paced, measured, held, passed through the nose or the mouth, performed slowly, or quickly, greedily gulped, and gently sipped. I have a complicated relationship with breathing. In meditation, I’ve struggled with paying attention to my own breath; my mind wanders away. As a surfer, I’ve had to confront the necessity of being able to hold my breath for extended periods of time when I am held down by undertows. I have trained in CO2 tolerance and breath holding techniques, and have held my breath to the point of pain, watching my mind become desperate as my diaphragm spasms and my blood itself seems to want to drink air. I’ve played with the breath, using rapid breathing to induce altered states of consciousness and have been moved to tears on the floor of a Brooklyn yoga studio while doing breathwork. I’m no stranger to the nuances of breathing. And so when I discovered that James Nestor’s new book Breath offers a kind of guide to various breathing techniques, I grabbed a copy and read with an open mind. I started with curiosity and ended up learning far more about breathing and breathing techniques than I ever imagined.

But breathing is a little like writing. Everyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well. How to breathe better is a lot like learning how to write better. Attention is key.

And so, Breath is best read as a practical guide. After all, few bodily processes are as accessible and as easy to manipulate as breathing. All it takes is a little focus.

Breath opens with a description of how, while practicing pranayama techniques, the author underwent something of a transformation. I decided to try the breathing technique for myself, but found it difficult to penetrate given that Nestor used a practice known as Sudarshan Kriya, a branded and trademarked technique developed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a yogic guru whose meditation feats were studied by the Menninger Clinic in the 70s. Today you can buy the full course at The Art of Living, but it will cost you.

Fortunately, there are videos online that take you through the rudimentary paces of Sudarshan Kriya. Nestor warns that only a lesson at the Art of Living can teach the proper technique, but I noticed that the video mentioned the Ujjayi breath, and given that I didn’t have several hundreds of dollars to spare on an online breathing course, I decided to dig a little deeper into the practice myself.

My first real lesson in pranayama, the ancient yogic practice of controlling the breath, was to learn how to perform a proper Ujjayi breath. I didn’t need to look too far to find a helpful video. Adriene, of Yoga with Adriene, devotes a whole video to the technique. In Ujjayi breathing, the inhale occurs through the nose. The ultimate goal with Ujjayi breathing is to extend the exhale. 

Breathing Finch. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Breathing Finch. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

The first time I combined these techniques, I was house sitting for friends in Kalihi Valley in O’ahu. I live in Waikiki and Kalihi is just up the road, but it might as well be another universe. The tourist district gives way to bodegas and household shrines. As you drive deeper into the valley, the rainforest takes over, and the greenery literally reaches out of the margins of the road and into your car.

My friend’s patio overlooks the valley ridgeline, a spine of mountains that tower over the valley like a ribcage. I sat crossed legged on the outdoor couch, and watched the trees shiver in the wind, each tree like a single cell in the lungs, capturing air, vibrating with life. I watched for a moment, and then shut my eyes, settling into my breath as I assumed the posture the nice Indian man in the video encouraged me to find.

The movement of breath is the movement of energy. Electrons leave the body. Electrons enter it. The body gives its energy out and takes energy in.

It is difficult to explain what happened to me during the meditation. The ineffable is difficult to describe like that. I felt the valley inhale when I inhaled. I felt it exhale when I exhaled. Wind passed through the trees, and entered my body. With my exhale, the wind moved, the trees moved. All sense of division between my body and the bodies of the plants dissolved. All sense of division between my inhale and exhale and the wind’s movement dissolved.

I had become part of the flow of Kalihi Valley, and by extension, the world and the universe. It was not that I believed I could control the wind, but rather, that I understood that if I could become attuned to the wind and to nature, I could see that I was ultimately not divided from it at all, and part of its rhythms. I understood immediately that if I could somehow live in attunement with these rhythms, everything would work out.

I emerged from the meditation feeling transformed, so transformed that the word transformation is an understatement. Meditation can offer mental clarity, but this was something else. This was something verging on insight. I had a renewed faith that not only might I someday achieve real balance in my life, but that I’d already achieved it. I felt deep compassion and connection with every tree in Kalihi Valley.

The Benefits of Certain Breathing Techniques

Is it possible to change your mind by changing your breath? James Nestor offers compelling evidence that it is not only possible to change your mind by changing the way you breathe, but that you can also change your mood, your heart rate, your metabolism, and more by using certain breathing techniques. You can increase athletic performance. Nestor writes about researchers who have found that by fully emptying the lungs, we can increase our lung capacity and cardiovascular efficiency.

Slower breathing can increase carbon dioxide buildup in our bodies. We tend to think of carbon dioxide as the gas we want to get rid of when we exhale, but carbon dioxide is actually important. Carbon dioxide acts like a magnet in the body, drawing oxygen toward it wherever it is. As our muscles build up carbon dioxide, they draw more oxygen to them, the reason why when we work out, our bodies are efficient at delivering oxygen to the muscles where oxygen is most needed.

Nestor takes his readers on a tour of deep human history, revealing why humans suck at breathing (after the farming revolution, humans started to eat soft processed food that caused our mandibles to atrophy), and why our teeth are so crooked (“our ancient ancestors chewed for hours a day, every day. And because they chewed so much, their mouths, teeth, throats, and faces grew to be wide.”). He explains that breathing through the nose is healthier than mouth breathing, and even puts himself through a miserable experiment where he forces himself to breathe only through the mouth for a week and a half. (The results are terrible: Nestor’s blood pressure goes up, his heart rate variability declines, his mental clarity turns to fog, he suffers from insomnia, he begins to suffer from sleep apnea, and he generally feels like crap.)

When Nestor begins breathing through his nose, his blood pressure drops, his heart rate variability increases by more than 150%, his sleep apnea goes away, and he feels much better. Nose breathing is important, Nestor explains, because the nostrils warm the air and remove dust and other impurities that can get us sick. The nostrils also pressurize the air, so that when the air gets to our lungs, they can “extract more oxygen with each breath.”

Nose breathing has been practiced and promoted for its life-affirming and health-affirming effects by ancient cultures and civilizations. Native American cultures including the Lakota Sioux and the civilizations along the Mississippi trained their children to breathe through their noses from infancy. For these cultures, breath through the nose was medicine. In yogic traditions, nose breathing was also important, as I’d soon learn as I ventured deeper into breathing meditations.

Breathing Techniques: An Ongoing Practice

Like any practice, breathing seems to have its weekend warriors, content to learn a couple of styles and practice them weekly in a group or during a short daily meditation practice. For those wishing to go deeper, there is a wealth of knowledge and breathing techniques available in Nestor’s book.

Breathing well can even have psychological benefits. My therapist tells me to take a deep breath whenever I feel anxious. By practicing with my breath, I can break my reliance on alcohol to soothe my anxiety in social situations.

I admit I didn’t come to Nestor’s Breath as a complete novice. I had already trained in many of the breathing techniques he offers. It was nice to find a book that gathered them all together in one place.

As I played with the breath further, I found myself exploring its limits and possibilities and making discoveries of my own. If I incorporated an “om” into my exhale, strange things happened to my mind and body if I extended the exhale along with the vocalization, and if I emptied my lungs fully before holding my breath, I could draw my body and mind into an altered state during an extended inhale. If I practiced gratitude while holding my breath, my breath hold could last longer. In many ways, the breathing techniques in Nestor’s Breath are a primer. A little curiosity and experimentation also goes a long way when it comes to learning about the limits and potential of the breath.

Click here to join.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

How to Organize a Bookshelf

While there are many theories about how to organize a bookshelf, I prefer a more personal and creative, but perhaps less aesthetic, approach.

Organizing a bookshelf is truly the process of organizing one’s brain. There are many theories on the web about how to organize a bookshelf. One can organize a bookshelf alphabetically, by size, or by color, but I find these strategies require far too much discipline. Discipline may matter when it comes to personal training or meeting deadlines, but when it comes to creativity, dreaming, and exploring, nothing ruins the creative mind faster than discipline.

I prefer to organize my bookshelf with love, which is to say, the books I love sit closer to my desk, while the remaining titles sit arranged by subject. But, entropy is constant, and every several months my books disorganize themselves, requiring me to re-organize my shelves. So, on a week where I was especially keen on procrastinating, I began by emptying the bookshelves my boyfriend had so lovingly constructed for me, and got to the hard work of organizing my bookshelf and organizing my mind.

A Song So Divine That My Fantasy Won't Sing It Back to Me. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
A Song So Divine That My Fantasy Won’t Sing It Back to Me. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

After putting my books into various stacks: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, science, psychology, philosophy, self-growth, and books I wished I’d written, I found I still had four whole shelves of unrealized ambitions. These were books I never got around to reading. I am embarrassed to name some of the titles on this shelf. I will spare myself the humility. In graduate school I’d been assigned some, and for reasons of mental health or exhaustion, I never got around to reading. Well meaning friends gave me some. Others I purchased in ambitious seasons.

The act of purchasing a book is an act of limitless hope. It’s a commitment. It’s a statement to oneself: I will have leisure time, and I will use it wisely. My shelves of unrealized ambitions are a testament to my self-delusion that I am the possessor of infinite time.

Some ambitions can be set aside. I have an entire shelf devoted only to rock climbing guides, filled with lines I’d once dreamed of climbing. Now, all my climbing guides sit next to Milan Kundera’s Immortality because I’d need immortality to climb all the lines of my dreams and also immortality to properly read Immortality. In the period of my life where I’d quixotically purchased these guides, my ex-husband had tried to read to me in the evening. I know I have heard Kundera’s Immortality in its entirety, but I don’t remember it.

I’d fall asleep as soon as he started reading. I only remember an old woman in a pool, which isn’t impressive at all. It is the novel’s opening image. And yet, somehow the memory of my ex-husband reading to me even as I slept touches me as a supreme act of love, which is to care and attend to someone even when they may not always care or attend to you.

In my life I have cared too much as a noun, and cared too little as a verb. I’m working on it.

I have a whole bookshelf devoted entirely to poetry, with criticism on the bottom shelf because critics are bottom feeders. My boyfriend corrected me. They are guppies, he said. Maybe critics are guppies.

When I was a child, I had a fish called guppy who was a bottom feeder. I loved him. One day, he disappeared. I kept looking for him in the water as it grew murkier and murkier. I moved the plants and shifted the rocks, and the water grew dim, but never found guppy. Eventually, the tank grew so dirty, we had to clean it. My mother sifted out the plants and the goldfish, but she didn’t find guppy, either. He must have been hiding. Where could he have gone? Weeks passed. Months. No guppy. The tank grew dirty again. When my mother cleaned the tank a second time, she disassembled the water filter, and we found guppy trapped in the tiniest of hoses that connected to the air filer. He was so small, he’d gotten sucked in and died there, trapped.

Perhaps this is an omen that I shouldn’t get into literary criticism, or maybe it’s just a warning against keeping fish tanks. Let the omen stand, regardless.

I put my children’s books into stacks on the floor and think about guppy. My most treasured book is The Little Red Caboose. My grandmother read me that story over and over. “The little red caboose always came last.” I can still hear her emphasis on the word last. In the story, the little red caboose saves the day. The story is an allegory about how the small forgotten things in the world, the things we easily overlook, are the most important. It was my grandmother’s most important lesson to me. It is okay to be last, okay to be forgotten. Okay to be small. It’s okay to read to someone who has fallen asleep. It is okay to leave some books unread. It’s okay to be forgotten.

That little golden book sits on a shelf with all the other books that formed me: the essays of David Foster Wallace and Joan Didion. The letters of Emily Dickinson. The fiction of Leo Tolstoy. Virginia Woolf. Frankenstein.

Some of the books I once thought formed me, actually didn’t form me at all. They merely represented more egoistical dreams. Tinkers by Paul Harding was a good book and it won the Pulitzer prize, but I loved the book less for what it did to me, than for what it represented. I wanted the Harvard fellowship Harding had. I organize my bookshelf to rethink my priorities, and organize my bookshelf to remember my priorities.

But Harding had to leave his family to do the fellowship. I decided long ago I’d never again embrace a love that pushed out all my other loves, and so Tinkers has been demoted to my general fiction shelves. But I can still remember Harding’s beautiful descriptions of the inner workings of a clock, prose set like a jewel between the descriptions of the biological and psychological process of dying.

I don’t have a travel writing shelf, because my books are travelers. They have moved half a dozen times and every time, I have brought them with me. I brought them to Canada and for a whole year they were hostages of the Canadian border. My father had to cross the border to get them out of storage. They lived with me in New York City for a while. When I moved, I drove them across the continent and they lived in a closet in my parents’ apartment in Portland, Oregon.

When I moved to O’ahu, my dad shipped them box by box to Hawai’i by media mail because it was cheaper than putting them on a cargo ship.

After a whole morning of cleaning cobwebs, stacking, and re-stacking, my bookshelves are finally organized. In the Shinto tradition, there is the belief that spirits inhabit all things, but I think some things are more haunted than others. Each book I have has a life and a spirit. I touch Christopher Hitchens’s Mortality and I am reminded of camping alone in New Hampshire, a cold night where the caretaker helped me start a fire. The next morning I climbed the 700-foot-tall Cathedral Ledge with a guide, one line I finished.

I once resisted self-help books, but when I got back from that climb, something changed inside of me. I hid the self-help books behind my Tolstoy, but I still did all the worksheets in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Dummies.

Now, I don’t hide my self-help books, but keep them nearby for when I need help, which is often. Some are silly and make me laugh; others keep me grounded.

My books represent possibility and dreams, unfulfilled ambitions, and they house my memories. I have written journal entries in some of their margins, and have dog-earned others so much, they are twice as wide as they should be. I have lost some, given some away, and have had to re-buy some books because they were just too important not to have. My bookshelves are my brain. Today at least, my brain is in order.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Show Up

Show up even if you have nothing. Nothing is itself something. The honesty of the nothing you bring will be something.

Show up even if you are empty. The opening of an emptiness made the universe, so astronomers say.

Showing up cannot be optimized, measured, or submitted to the algorithm. Show up with your full attention, because attention is the prerequisite of love and without attention there is no love. Attention is your most precious resource. In a world where attention can be bought and sold, protect your attention like you protect your phone or wallet.

Even when you think there is no meaning, show up because sometimes the meaning is in the accident that happens when you find yourself at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Show up empty-handed, without the deliverables. Show up even if you don’t have the clever come-back.

Bring whatever it is you have before you.

Know that you are not alone in thinking you have nothing to bring. On some days, Emily Dickinson had only her heart. I imagine on one such day, she wrote this poem:

It’s all I have to bring today–

This, and my heart beside–

This, and my heart, and all the fields–

And all the meadows wide.

Emily Dickinson. Original Manuscript Can Be Viewed on the Emily Dickinson Archive.

If you find yourself staring into the blank page, let the blank page stare back into you. Listen to its honesty. Listen to what you say or don’t say when you have nothing else to say.

If you are tired, show up tired. Empty your exhaustion with an exhale.

Show up and inhale.

If you find yourself at the doorway of a new year, with nothing to bring to it, walk through that threshold with acceptance.

If you are cold, and hungry, and weary, and hurting, show up with all the coldness, the hunger, the weariness, the hurt. Others have been cold. Others have been hungry. Others have been weary. Others have hurt. Trust that what you bring will be enough.

Bring your difficulty, your imperfection, your clumsiness. Others have been imperfect. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity was incomplete, after all, which is why he developed General Relativity later.

Show up, knowing you are not the only one who has shown up empty handed to a party. Show up to the meeting, even if you have nothing to say. You have not been the only one who has remained silent, and there is often more to be learned by listening than by speaking.

Show Up Enso. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.
Show Up. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Trust that you will find something there.

Trust your mind to matter. Trust your mind over matter.

Show up to the difficulty. Small days, small actions, small refusals and acceptances amplify significantly.

In our culture of distraction, where each person invents her own virtues, presence is the rarest of all virtues, and the most difficult to cultivate. The blank page demands presence, but more importantly your life demands your presence. Show up.

Showing up is a practice. Let yourself practice. Let yourself fail. Don’t be afraid to start over. Don’t be afraid of your clumsy hands spilling ink over everything you have written.

There is no algorithm for presence. No measure to this quintessence.

Show up even when you cannot measure how you are showing up, even when you do not have the timer, or the to do list, or the application. Show up with grace and humility; with kindness. Show up with your heart, even if your heart is breaking. Show up because your heart is breaking.

Ask for what you want. Be open to receive. Show up and breathe.

If you cannot sit still, go to the woods, or to the ocean, or to the river, or to the lake. If you have none of these near you, go to your nearest tree. Listen to what it has to tell you.

With patience and grace and peace, ask for the wisdom to come to you. Trust that the wisdom will come.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

In Finch, Tom Hanks Warns of a Bleak Highly Possible Future

In Finch, the excellent new movie on Apple TV, Tom Hanks lives alone on a bleak ruined earth.

I take this as a bad sign for us all.

Tom Hanks is the archetype of American baby boomer masculinity and he plays characters that represent the highest ideals of American masculinity. These archetypes include the innovative scientist and explorer who comes home at all costs, the man who solves hard problems, who is tough on the battlefield and saves his friends, but stays soft for the girl. He’s a man who fights evil in all its forms, and exhibits courage under pressure. He’s a savvy businessman or detective, setting things right, helping the little guy win. He’s kind. He’s a hopeless romantic.

Tom Hanks has played characters who are all these things and more. He survived Apollo 13 and reminded us that we went to the moon, “not because it was easy, but because it was hard.” He survived Vietnam and the 60s, and stayed true to his high school sweetheart while taking over the world with shrimp in Forrest Gump. If every man is indeed an island, Tom Hanks proved it by showing us that he could survive being deserted on one in Castaway. He survived a hijacking by Somali pirates in Captain Phillips and showed us that the terrorists wouldn’t win. He played Sully Sullenberger, the hero who landed a plane on the Hudson River, in Sully. He coached a woman’s baseball team in A League of Their Own, managed a 60s rock band in That Thing You Do, and caught one of the worst young con men his generation ever knew in Catch Me If You Can. He was Sleepless in Seattle, and introduced us to new ways to woo in You’ve Got Mail. Pardon my French, but shit, he was Mr. Rogers himself in Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.

When Ton Hanks got COVID, the pandemic got real. If the archetypal American dad could get COVID, none of our dads were safe. And when Tom Hanks got better, I think we all felt hopeful relief.

On the one hand, I’m a big fan of Tom Hanks, and on the other hand, my psychic relationship with him goes deeper than that. He stands in for my dad in many films. My dad also went to the Vietnam war, saved his friends, got a Purple Heart. On family vacations my dad led our hikes like Chuck Noland in Castaway, making do with what he had, finding ways to get us un-lost. My father may not have landed a plane, or steered the re-entry module in space, but he fixed our broken fan belt when the car broke down in the New Mexico desert and he got my van started when it overheated on the side of a Miami freeway when I was a teenager. And while my mom wasn’t his high school sweetheart, he’s stayed true to her for 36 years.

And so when Tom Hanks plays a new character or stars in a new film, I pay attention, because I wonder on one hand, what version of my Dad he’s going to be this year, and also what ideal of American masculinity he’ll represent this time around. In Tom Hanks’s most recent film, Finch, released on Apple TV just days ago, Hanks plays Finch, an engineer stranded in a post-apocalyptic world, with a dog for his only living companion. He also has robot friends. A little Mars rover that serves as the living dog’s robot foil, and Jeffrey, a humanoid robot Finch creates himself, that serves as Finch’s human foil. The story isn’t a happy one, and it would spoil too much to give away who dies and who lives, but I’ll say this much: the narrative is a perfect foil to every tragic dog film ever created.

To say the movie is well done is an understatement. We don’t learn right away what happened to the planet, but we’re given subtle clues, brilliantly delivered. Finch sleeps and works surrounded by books about the consequences of solar flares and the dangers of ionizing radiation. Jeffrey emerges as an intelligent but child-like robot, ever-ready to please. Hanks is the hero, but he’s the hero of a world emptied of people, a world where no one can be trusted, a world without flowers, without sunshine, without natural beauty. His only goal is to get to the Golden Gate bridge where he can hear the cables sing and maybe find some of the remaining canned food that hasn’t been ransacked by marauding cannibals.

And so, we have Finch After Apollo 13 and Forest Gump and Castaway, this is how American men will spend their golden years. Not as astronauts looking back on their triumph of having touched the moon, nor as the good-guy businessman that made a living from something small, like shrimp, nor as a man who has found his own island, but this, a man growing old, driving a recreational vehicle around a ruined planet.

This is the future to which the boomers have to look forward as they retire and grow older.

The same men that dreamed themselves to the moon, saved their friends on the battlefield or protested unjust wars. The same men who transformed the culture with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, now find themselves alone on a dying planet, with no heirs but their robots. Their children will inherit fields of dust, a planet too hot for their skin, a climate racked by tornadoes and extreme weather events.

Celestial Sphere. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Watercolor.
Celestial Sphere. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Like so many baby boomers, Finch is reduced to driving around an overheated America in a recreational vehicle.

Spend any summer in the American west, and you too can see it. The line of gas guzzling recreational vehicles driven by senior citizens, lining the roads of America’s national parks like a swollen rosary.

In a world without people, the people have no purpose, but the robots have no real purpose either. Jeffrey is an advanced humanoid robot that can rattle off several thousand facts about every new object he encounters, but he’s basically a glorified can opener.

After all, Finch has designed Jeffrey to take care of his dog after he passes away.

The Tin Man may have only wanted to have a heart in the Wizard of Oz, but Jeffrey doesn’t even know what his heart is for. At the end of the movie, he learns that the place where is heart should be is a can opener.

It is not accidental that the humanoid robot’s name is Jeffrey. Jeff is Tom Hanks’s middle name.

Will Finch ever make it to the Golden Gate Bridge? Does it even matter? Will Jeffrey have what it takes to take care of his dog when he dies? Does that matter? Near the end of the film, Finch hits a butterfly with his mobile home, and finds a patch of sky where the ozone hasn’t been turned to swiss cheese. He sits in a white Ernest Hemmingway suit, drinking his Jameson, playing fetch with his dog, staring at the one and only flower growing in the desert.

I won’t give away the movie’s end. I’ll only say this. It had me weeping so hard by the end of it that no number of tissues could clean the snot off my face.

What died at the end of the film wasn’t any single character, but a whole generation of American men who find themselves in their golden years, wondering what world they might be leaving behind. What died at the end of the film was the world my dad fought for, sacrificed for. There is hope, but unless we change our ways and change them fast, that hope is fleeting.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Brad Stulberg’s The Practice of Groundedness: More Beach Reading, Less Optimization

Brad Stulberg, in The Practice of Groundedness writes that so many top performers share a common dissatisfaction with their lives. “Deep down, they, too, often sense that something is not quite right, that something is missing.” In recent weeks, I’ve spent many minutes standing before the bathroom mirror, wondering whether it was just me that didn’t quite feel right. I barely resisted the temptation to Google “I feel dead inside,” and then I gave in to the temptation, and watched “Yoga for When You Feel Dead Inside” by Adriene, which would be excellent if only I could do Yoga without injuring myself. The tendency I have during these periods of existential malaise is to dive headlong into work and projects, ignoring the small but insistent alarm bell within telling me that I’m missing something essential. Three weeks and an anxiety attack later, I might finally divine that more groundedness and perhaps a break is in order, but for once, I didn’t succumb to the compulsion to engage in idle business and chose instead to get myself to Waikiki beach, sling a hammock to the two closest palm trees I could find, and cuddle up with The Practice of Groundedness by Brad Stulberg as my latest beach read.

If you’ve been feeling not-quite-right or that something is missing, Stulberg has a name for this condition; he calls it heroic individualism. He defines heroic individualism as a contemporary condition where people feel “restless…rushed…angst, exhaustion, burnout, periods of emptiness, a compulsion to keep chasing the next thing, and recurrent longing.” Fortunately, there’s a cure to all this existential malaise. Stulberg calls it “groundedness.” Buddhists have been calling it meditation and mindfulness for thousands of years, but, hey, whatever it takes.

Groundedness is the opposite of productivity, optimization, and a “growth mindset.” Instead, groundedness involves a radical embrace of things as they are, a commitment to slow down. I rocked in my hammock and sunk deeper into my book, smiling smugly to myself as I considered how consistent I’d been with my meditation timer. Stulberg doesn’t give his readers formulas and much of his advice runs counter to the premise that we need to fit more of our finite selves into increasingly limited hours in the day, maximizing ourselves and our time. Instead, Stulberg calls for greater simplicity. He suggests we aim for greater acceptance, presence, patience, and vulnerability, all the while eschewing traditional notions of productivity, while embracing what Stulberg calls “deep community” and movement.

The smug smile faded from my face as I read about “deep community.” As a misanthropic introvert, my seeming lack of deep community reminded me I was a failure at life. I looked around at all the people hanging on the beach with their friends and sighed.

Perhaps one of Stulberg’s most meaningful contributions in The Practice of Groundedness is his observation that popular notions of optimization, productivity, and growth often run counter to the sometimes difficult and inconvenient process of taking time out of our day to connect with those we love. It may be inconvenient to join a new group to forge new connections, but Stulberg argues that it is essential for mental health. Stulberg notes that going to the gym with a buddy might be less convenient or optimal than going to the gym alone, but that the social connections formed by doing so are well worth the inconvenience.

It’s not so much that Stulberg calls for a repudiation of ambition, but rather that he calls for his readers to put ambition in its rightful place. He writes that in his coaching practice he’ll find that his overly ambitious clients will be susceptible to using exercise and movement practices as a means to achieve goals like running a marathon, lifting a certain number of pounds, or completing a triathlon. While there’s nothing wrong with ambition, ambition can get in the way of the simple practice of enjoying the thing for what it is.

As someone who has often followed ambition up mountains and sometimes off the edge of cliffs, I found myself unhappily seeing myself in so many of Stulberg’s anecdotes. In the pursuit of deadlines and writing goals, I sometimes missed out on phone calls with friends, community-building, and mental health, the end result being burn-out, loneliness, and a feeling of restlessness. Writing can all too often feel like connection, but it’s no replacement for authentic conversation. Surfing is my daily exercise, but even there I found myself focusing on goals, wanting to surf a bigger wave, or reach the nose of my longboard, rather than just enjoying the simplicity of paddling and sliding on the water.

Diamond Head. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Diamond Head. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

It is easy to read about change, more difficult to implement it. Stulberg’s advice is good. For example, he suggests that we all make an appointment with ourselves for focused productivity, where the phone is put away, and interruptions and distractions are eliminated.

I find that I can get more done when I set a timer and write for an hour at a time rather than let myself freely roam toward a deadline.

Stulberg also urges his readers to schedule time to build deep community, either through volunteering, joining a support group, joining a faith-based group, or building a group around an interest of their choosing. For those of us still emerging from the social distancing of COVID-19, or those of us living in areas of the country where COVID-19 case numbers remain high, this might be harder to do.

Distraction from our cell phones is one thing, but I believe we remain distracted precisely because we don’t have deep community and connections in real life. The human brain is wired for connection. Without it, the brain will seek whatever connections it can, whether they be on social media, or through doom scrolling the internet. It’s emotionally safer to distantly like a friend’s photo, and much more difficult to actually pick up the phone and give a friend a call. The big thing I take away from Stulberg’s book is this—we all should be trying to optimize less, and trying to connect more. It’s messy. It’s hard. It makes us vulnerable. But it’s the only thing that will make us feel better, and the only thing that will combat the symptoms of Stulberg’s heroic individualism.

Come to think of it, it’s not heroic individualism that’s the problem, but rather, chronic loneliness.

I didn’t get the chance to do much beach reading. I heard a commotion nearby. A group of people had gathered to protest local vaccination mandates. Honolulu had implemented new rules that required people to either be vaccinated or have a negative test result to go to a restaurant, bar, or gym.

A crowd marched down the street together, beating drums and chanting, an unvaccinated miasma. I marveled at how deep community in modern life seems to spring from extremist political positions, rage, or violence. Perhaps it’s always been easier to get people to gather out of outrage rather than love. Either way, I took the hint, packed my hammock, and went home.

Brad Stulbeg’s The Practice of Groundedness at Amazon.com

Brad Stulberg’s The Practice of Groundedness at Bookshop.org

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Koan: Are You Here?

Koan & Enso: Are You Here. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Koan & Enso: Are You Here? Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Are you here? Are you here? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy there are roughly 1,700 formal koans. Books like The Gateless Gate and The Sound of One Hand are excellent collections of formal koans and offer a wonderful starting point if you are looking to delve deeper into classical koan practice.

But koan practice is as much a living art form as it is ancient poetry. According to Lion’s Roar, koan practice is a living practice: “koans have always been with us, and always are. They arise naturally in life and out of the dilemmas we face.” There are formal koans and then there are those koans that “arise spontaneously from our traumatic experiences” or from experience itself. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy continues, “Zen insists that the Zen practitioner plant his feet in the everydayness of ‘here and now.’” The question that follows is this: “how far wide is ‘here’ and how long ‘now’”?

Lately, I’ve been taking more time to pause and settle into the present moment, time to make my mind more expansive, time to settle into peace. Sometimes the practice of being present presents itself as a challenge. It is difficult to sit still in meditation, difficult to try to paint an enso (or circle) in one fluid movement, difficult to listen to the still voice within and transcribe its words without rational judgement.

Matsuo Basho wrote: “Every day is a journey and the journey itself is home.” Home is right here, wherever I am, neither the future nor the past.

Sometimes it is important to take a break and settle into the present moment, without expectations, without striving, without planning. It’s okay to have goals and to want to achieve things, but in our goal-oriented, achievement-obsessed culture, it is also important to take a step back and settle in to how things are right now.

Happiness requires a commitment to the present. According to Brad Stulberg, in his book, The Practice of Groundedness, “Researchers from Harvard found that when people are fully present for their activities, they are much happier, and more fulfilled than when they’re thinking about something else.” The researchers explained: “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Stulberg explains: “When we protect our time, energy, and attention and direct it wisely–when we are present for meaningful people, places, and pursuits–our entire experience of being alive improves dramatically.”

So, this week, I put away the phone, painted circles, and listened to what my inner voice had to say. It asked me to pause, and I paused. Perhaps the best definition of love is this: love is where we place our attention. And so, perhaps the beginning of wisdom is this–to pay attention to what we pay attention to on a daily basis. To pause this moment and ask what consumes me and what am I consuming? Is it aligned with my deepest values? Is it aligned with love?

In his book Be Here Now, Ram Dass argues that the greatest mystical experinces of all require commitment to the present moment.

Brad Stulberg writes that when we are present, we enter a sacred space. Presence is a “day-to-day decision. How do I want to show up? Where do I want to direct my energy and attention? What do I want to be present for?”

Now is perhaps the greatest koan of all. No one can tell you the answer, but the answer is right there.

The Gateless Gate: The Classic Book of Zen Koans at Amazon.com

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.

Criticism

Carl Jung, Dreams, and How to Make Creative Choices

In his book Dreams, Carl Jung argues that we might find guidance in how to make creative choices while dreaming. While I’m not so sure about getting all of one’s answers from dreams, the heart of Jung’s point is resonant. To make better choices, we need to balance logic and love, weigh our conscious desires against deeper desires for which there aren’t always words. Decision-making so often involves the decision to preserve the status quo, but creative decision-making can take us outside the expected, and into the place where transformation and the extraordinary is possible. Jung writes, “ A dream may perhaps supply what is then lacking, or it may help us forward where our best efforts have failed.” I read Jung’s Dreams when I was myself searching for answers. I was married. I wanted to be married. I also didn’t want to be married. I loved my husband. I loved myself. But I couldn’t reconcile love for myself with love for my husband. Lacking answers in my waking life, I turned to dreams.

There comes a point in one’s life where real choices must be made. As the horizon between adolescence and adulthood becomes more blurry, perhaps a more authentic definition of adulthood is the moment in one’s life where one is forced by fate or circumstance to take real responsibility for one’s life. There are choices no one can make for us, choices for which we, and only we, can bear the consequence. For some, these choices take the form of what to pursue as a field of study, which college to attend, or which career path one will take. For others it involves whom one chooses to marry or where one chooses to live.

The pressure of choice can arrive early or later in life, but at some point, all of us are forced to bear responsibility for our lives. Making choices is difficult. In real decision-making, it means we are forced to sacrifice between two mutually exclusive competing desires. For example, when deciding whether to paddle out into the ocean on a bigger day, my desire to tackle the challenge and the thrill of riding those waves is often balanced with my desire for self-preservation. Choice also entails some degree of risk. Do we pursue a dream and sacrifice some security? Or do we choose security? (Steph Davis, the great free solo rock climber and BASE jumper writes brilliantly about decision-making in the context of risk-taking here.) Not making a choice is also a choice, as we have seen in the recent failure of the Supreme Court to act on a law in Texas prohibiting abortions that essentially imposes an abortion ban on the state of Texas. The Supreme Court’s choice to not choose effectively took choice away from millions of women.

You Must Change Your Life. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
You Must Change Your Life. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Carl Jung is most well-known for his theory of the collective unconscious, but his writing covers a broad spectrum of human experience, roving into the nature of dreams, literary theory, myth, metaphor, religion, and esoteric art. One of Jung’s most famous ideas, the idea of the collective unconscious, serves to explain why themes across religious and cultures recur again and again. Jung believed that certain themes or archetypes involving birth, death, the mother figure, the earth, the sea, the forest, the sun, and more are inherited and exist in our unconscious. After all, if the physical structures of the brain can be inherited, why wouldn’t the structures, responsible for thought, also leave us with traces of ancient ideas?

How so many billions of neurons networked together somehow blink awake to form consciousness is one of the great mysteries of the universe. According to Jung, a person is born with archetypes inherited from the depth of human time. Yet how the structure informs thought remains mysterious, and the great sea of the collective unconscious does little to offer us guidance in how to make choices in our lives.  

Decision-making isn’t just a process that sets a trajectory for our lives. It can also be a process of deciding how we plan to use our limited time on this planet.

Perhaps Jung’s better advice about creative decision-making is more practical than esoteric and comes from a letter he wrote in 1933, reproduced in part in Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, a wonderful book about the nature of our limited time and how to use it.

Jung had been asked in a letter how one should go about creating a life. To this question, Jung had no answer, explaining, “one lives as one can. There is no single, definite way.”

Indeed, Jung’s answer touches at the heart of the modern challenge of creating our own moral code. Most of us muddle along as best we can. Even if one chooses to follow a religious doctrine, we do so by choice. If our current megachurch fails us, there’s always another one down the road with open doors.

In the Middle Ages there was the Catholic Church, and in other places and times there may have been the king or the socially-acceptable pantheon of deities, but in modern America, you get to choose your deities, and capitalism would prefer your deities be material goods. I think many of us realize that the deity of consumption will only leave us feeling more empty. At the end of the day, we’ll need to choose something other than what to buy.

Jung explained that the path one chooses is “the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being when you put one foot in front of the other.” Jung continues: “But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.”

Creative decision-making, according to Jung, doesn’t involve an intricate life plan. Instead, it requires each of us to fully inhabit the present moment and to do the “next and most necessary thing” whatever that is. Perhaps true creativity lies in this space: the space of real urgency.

The most important decisions in life can’t be made with a pro and con list, like Darwin does here. They cannot be made by reading the right self-help books, or even by asking others for guidance. Indeed, creative decision-making exists only in the present, when you commit to doing the next most necessary thing, and then the next.

And maybe that’s how the big creative decisions of our lives are best made.

I read Jung’s Dreams. I was married. And then I lovingly did the next necessary thing, and the next, and the next, until I wasn’t in the city anymore, until I wasn’t married. And I was sad for a very long time. But then I learned to surf, and I traveled more, and I spent more nights dreaming under the stars, and slowly, I grew happy again.

Carl Jung’s Dreams at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.