Friday, February 17, 2023

intensive farming of the mind (climate friday)


Greetings, poetry folk. I don't know about you, but when I  read--that is, when I give myself over to the full, intensive experience of story--I just about lose myself. (This explains why, during 20 years of intensive parenting and teaching, I more or less stopped reading. The possible ramifications were too dangerous: that I would find myself in the middle of Chapter 23 with children uncollected, dinner uncooked, laundry undone. The exception I made--no regrets--was for reading aloud every word of all seven Harry Potter books to my son.)

My Big Intention for 2023 is to read again in the way that I did as a kid, intensively, with full focus, preferably with an actual book in my hand. It was going pretty well; reading for the Cybils Poetry Award helped me start the year off right (more about the Cybils below).

But over the last two weeks, I've been consumed by CLOUD CUCKOOLAND by Anthony Doerr--mostly
listening during the intensive driving I've found myself doing, with occasional dips into the physical book we have at home, and I have so many thoughts and reflections now that I've finished it that I can barely conceive how to address them in one blog post. Typing that I realize that's a foolish goal, but I'm going to make a start with OVERKILL.

My spouse is a skimmer and so has read many more books than I have in the last 20 years, and out of love I'll agree to call that "reading."  She will also frequently nudge me at dinner parties when she thinks that I am holding forth for too long and with too many details.  "People don't want to hear all that; it's overkill" is the message she's sending.  I have argued (hotly, later at home) that actually there are many people who really ENJOY all that detail, usually the same people who trouble to read every word of a good book, but she's right that overkill, also known as heavy-handedness, can be the downfall of a book.

I'm sure that there are people who would call CLOUD CUCKOO LAND heavy-handed in the way that again and again the connections and layers of the six interlocking stories from 4 distinct eras are made plain: themes and images that repeat and repeat and repeat until even the least attentive reader has noticed the birds--especially the owls, the "deformities" of each character, the single special evergreen tree, libraries, seige, war and occupation, walls, and above all, story and language and books themselves. 

And, in the storylines of the most current characters Seymour and Konstance, Doerr connects further to the technology-assisted decimation of Earth, to corporate greenwashing, and to the cloud-cuckoo-land idea of launching humanity to some other destination in the galaxy to escape our climate-distastrous fate. (Linguistic note: describing someone as "living in cloud cuckoo land"--completely out of touch with reality--is a common expression in the UK.)

There are people who might be tempted to skim over this overkill, but for me (and tons of others swooning over these nearly 600 pages) the carefully crafted intensity is one of the glories.  Is Anthony Doerr guilty of intensive farming practices?  Using this definition, I think the answer is yes.

"The term intensive agriculture generally refers to maximizing agricultural production on a given area of land with inputs such as labor, fertilizer and machinery. It involves a range of practices designed to rapidly and cheaply grow plentiful crops and raise large numbers of farm animals. The creation of synthetic fertilizer to stimulate plant growth, for example, led to huge increases in food production."

 Anthony totally maximized his literary production on the given area of my mind with inputs such as word choice, symbolism and metaphor.  He used the synthetic fertilizer of many other classical and well-known stories to stimulate idea growth, which has led to huge increases in my thought production.  He may be guilty, but of all the intensive farming practices, I'd say intensive farming of the mind is the single climate-friendly one!

Outside of my mind, on the river-deep, mountain-high and glacier-wide earth, overkill and heavy-handedness are indeed a problem. Over the last month, for real reasons, I have driven more local miles and burned more gas probably than in the 6 months before. I am aware of it every moment (and also of how this has enabled my enjoyment of 600 pages of CCL!). I have, while recalculating our shopping and kitchen habits in the new house, made many choices of convenience over responsibility. Even in my writing life, participating in a poetry project with the theme of story has led to a bunch of poems much longer than my usual.  I'm feeling the overheavy weight of muchness.

So the workshop that I participated in last night with gentle and incisive Truth Thomas, the originator of The Skinny poetry form, was a welcome relief--in particular his insistence that poetry is made of "figurative" language, a way of naming our art that I somehow had forgotten about.

In case you are unfamiliar, The Skinny is a form of 11 lines only, and 9 of those lines must be a single word, and 3 of those single-word lines employ the same word.  It is, formally and stylistically, the opposite of a novel like CLOUD CUCKOO LAND. Here are two Skinnys that came of that--one directly related to my reading experience, and one borne of the immoderacy I've been feeling.


In that last one I am testing out punctuation--I learned last night that titles are expected in a Skinny, which I hadn't realized, and now I realize I didn't ask about punctuation.  Let's all go over to the The Skinny Poetry Journal and look at plenty of examples to figure it out!

And now, before we all go over to Molly's at Nix the Comfort Zone for our round-up, where she's exhilarating over very deserving winter trees, let's look at our Cybils Poetry Award winners! (FANFARE...)

I'm very proud of our judges' committee choices!



  1. Your Skinnies are excellent. Some forms are especially difficult to me (haiku, Skinnies, blackout poems). I am also impressed that you are writing more poems beyond Laura's February project!

  2. Your wonderful poems have inspired me to learn more about Skinnys and Truth Thomas. Thank you for sharing these and this new-to-me form.

  3. The way you describe Cloud Cuckoo Land is how I feel as I listen to Braiding Sweetgrass. The richness of the words in English and Ojibwe is beyond beautiful. I've been given the signal that I'm in overkill mode so much by family and some friends that I tend to cut myself short before I "go there" to spare them from it. So, Heidi--I get it! We marry our opposites but really, they need us to go into overkill. It's how they find depth. Love your skinny-es! The open book is fabulous!

  4. Now I want to read CCL all over again! Your skinny for the ending is all kinds of truth and perfection. And the way you play with punctuation in the second is masterful.

  5. The skinny! Another cool form I'd like to try. I love that line, "we thing ourselves." Boy, isn't that the truth. I'll look for the Cybils winners at the local library. I'm trying to read more, too, and currently am immersed in Ninth Street Women, by Mary Gabriel, a group bio about five women Abstract Expressionists. It's fascinating, and very well-paced.

  6. Writing skinnies in response to Cloud Cuckoo Land feels as if Doerr might like to read them, too, Heidi. I've re-read All The Light We Cannot See but not Cloud Cuckoo Land, yet! You've made me want another look! Nice that you did the workshop with Truth Thomas, too!

  7. I love your overkill response to what you're reading! Now I want to go read it for myself. I find skinnies very challenging to write. Nicely done!

  8. You had me at "we thing ourselves" - and I did read the whole post ;)

  9. I'm seeing so many wonderful skinnys (skinnies? I'm torn) this week, including your wonderful examples, and I'm so intrigued! And, just have to throw in that I'm in the deep dive camp when it comes to books I love. I haven't read Doerr yet, so I can't weigh in on this one, but I love your comparison to intensive farming practices. "Intensive farming of the mind" — love that!

  10. Wow! Reading, writing poems and crafting thought-provoking blogs to encompass them all! You've got it all going on! I thought Skinnies were hard enough before you told me they had to have titles, too! As Pooh Bear would say, "Oh, Bother!" Your two examples are great mentors of this much-harder-than-it-looks form. I'll also be continuing to think about your moderation reflections. Thanks for a great post!

  11. OH, Heidi, I loved Cloud Cuckoo Land. What amazing character development he managed in that tome. After I read your blog post a few days ago, I spent some time reading skinnies from all your links.

    "we thing ourselves" is masterful. Hooray for the Cybils Poetry Award winners!


Thanks for joining in the wild rumpus!