How To Intuit a Book Title

How do poets and writers choose their book titles?

I didn’t have a good answer to the question, Why did you choose the title Love Nailed to the Doorpost?” posed at a recent reading, though I knew that sooner or later that someone would ask. I did have a superficial answer, but I hadn’t thought through metaphorical or thematic meanings suggested by the title.

Honestly, until I read what a few others had to say about my book, I wasn’t even sure that the title pointed to a unifying concern.

Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, Third Temple, Love Nailed to the Doorpost: these are the titles in order of publication, of my four books of poetry.

The title Tekiah (1996) was the result of some brainstorming with friends around the dinner table, probably over Shabbat dinner. The moment a friend shouted out tekiah it stuck. Tekiah: a blast of the shofar, ram’s horn, sounded throughout the period leading up to and including the Jewish Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Chair in the Desert (2000) was one of a number of possible titles on a list I shared with two dear writer friends. The phrase appears in one of a group of poems set in Israel. The specific poem in which the phrase appears is spoken by a minister of immigration “welcoming” new immigrants by dispelling them of fantasies of Jerusalem they may have arrived with and directing them to their new home, their “chair in the desert.”

I found it fairly easy to come up with Third Temple (2007). “Third Temple,” one of the poems in the book that always (with one exception) elicited a favorable response from listeners and readers imagines me offering my (now deceased) 120 pound Chocolate Labrador Retriever “Bubby” as my sacrifice at the third temple in Jerusalem, should that temple ever be built and should the Jews return to the ancient practice of communicating with God by means of animal and other sacrifices.

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The Mysteries of Revision

When a former MFA professor asked me to come to her class and speak on revision, I immediately said yes. Not only was she a writer and an academic that I respected, there had been an ongoing, semi-inside, joke between me and some of my MFA cohort members about my desire to be acknowledged by this particular mentor.

And then—naturally, no big deal, so whatever—we’d become friends. I sent those same guys an e-mail with the subject Friendship Update and we all laughed.

The invitation came in January, a solid five months before I’d stand in a room of other writers and talk about revising book-length manuscripts. The length of advance notice seemed like an extravagance. Or at least, enough time that I wouldn’t need to immediately begin preparations.

And in the back of my head, a quiet voice reminded me that I was basically a pro on this topic. I’d revised enough book pages to choke a cow. Or at the very least, enough to feel comfortable putting the presentation on the backburner until, say, a month before I was to make the drive two hours north.

At the time, I didn’t know I would be stuck in the mud of my own revision, struggling with a book that is not only the best thing I’ve ever written, but also carries an immense amount of personal meaning. The other novels I’ve published are by no means lesser. But this one’s been rattling around inside me for fifteen years. It’s ambitious from a craft perspective, but also from a place of my own investment with the story.

For the first time, I felt like I was risking something and it was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

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Dancing with Words During National Poetry Month

Impressionistic painting of an expansive room with vaulted windows that open to the green of the outside. In the room, various dancers gathered by a bar or in the center of the room, practicing pointing their toes and stretching out their legs. They are wearing loose white and pale lavender tutus and leotards. In the left hand corner, an instructor in black sits and observes.Here’s your assignment. Choose a poem you’ve written (it could be any piece of writing, really, an email message, a shopping list, a complaint to a cable service provider, a toast for a wedding—you get the idea. If it’s a poem, chose only a few lines. If it’s another piece of writing, choose a portion of it. Then, translate those lines.

But here’s the thing. Don’t translate a word from one language into its equivalent word in another language. Instead, translate each letter of each word, in the order in which they appear, into an image, a concrete noun or active verb (“be” is an active verb, too!). What does the shape of each letter resemble? That “h”, is it a shovel? That “s”, is it snow or a leaf falling to the ground?

First do a raw translation, letter to word (or words), letter to word, letter to word. Now, using these words, arranging and adding words as needed to write complete sentences, write a poem. Or, if poetry isn’t for you, write a new shopping list! Or a letter to your senator! In this visual language, tell your senator to protect funding for the NEA! Or write a confession to God. [Read more…]

Mysteries Sherlock Holmes Can’t Solve

shot of a person writing in a journal with a pen. the journal is resting on the person's knees and they are sitting on a couch. you can't see their face.“No, you should definitely major in English,” I told our babysitter, a high-school senior from our church who is considering an English or Communications degree. “Fiction is just like faith,” I said, “it’s its own kind of knowledge that makes our lives richer.”

I really believe that, though I have to renew my conviction from time to time. I also believe faith is a kind of fiction. The kind that apprehends necessary truths. Not the truths we call science or philosophy, but the truths we call mysteries.

Growing up, mystery meant Sherlock Holmes and The Hardy Boys. It meant a problem of insufficient information, a puzzle of the material world that required careful reasoning and a little courage to sort out.

The Hardy Boys solved pretty ordinary problems, though. They were adventures as much as mysteries. In Sherlock Holmes, by contrast, mystery took on a cosmic significance.

Holmes’s ability to reason in linear fashion from observation to conclusion indicates his mastery of the basic machinations of the world. The largest mystery, in many ways, has been solved for him. He may have moments of reflection on the tragedy of misplaced love or foolish ambition, but he lives in a more or less mechanical world whose workings can be known and understood.

I used to love the clarity with which Holmes sees the world. I loved the precision with which a sign leads to an inevitable conclusion. A dirty hat means a problem with the wife. A man’s abnormal interest in geese means he’s a jewel thief.

This is a reassuring view of the world, and I was drawn to it because I never experienced the world as so certain, myself. I still do. The world is made, perhaps, for those who feel confident they understand it, and not so much for me. [Read more…]

On the Front Lines

classroom-by-chirstopher-sessums-on-flickrBy Paul Anderson

Seven months ago, I was teaching writing to high school seniors at a Christian school on the southwest side of Chicago, thirty minutes from my suburban hometown but essentially in another universe. I was three months away from finishing my MFA through Seattle Pacific University, and I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it—make it to the end of the MFA without succumbing to a mental collapse, or to the end of the teaching year without biting off a chunk of my tongue. There was no established curriculum for the class, so I created many of my lessons the night before, after I finished grading the students’ assignments from the same day.

While this won’t kill you, any education professional will tell you that it’s a recipe for disaster.

One night, between MFA and teaching work, I pulled out a copy of Image and flipped to Chris Hoke’s essay “Hearts Like Radios,” a piece that had jolted my numbed spiritual and creative nerves a few months earlier. [Read more…]