by Margie Lee
The email from VoiceCatcher said my poem “Silence” was accepted for its winter issue. I was ecstatic. Then I read, “Could you please clean up the punctuation?”
I have always been lousy at punctuation. When I was in high school, my papers had more red ink than black. I was using too many commas or too few. I could handle the colon, but the semicolon frightened me. When in doubt, I used dashes. Sometimes I got two grades: A for content and D for mechanics. I laughed it off. Anyone could do spelling and punctuation. I was interested in ideas.
In college I was saved by majoring in science. Geology majors are not required to do much writing. By grad school, no one seemed to care. The computer had spelling and grammar check. Many years later I joined a poetry group. Surprised at my lack of punctuation skills, one member of the group said, “You have some phrases capitalized and some not. If you don’t want to use capitals, fine. But at least be consistent.” I laughed a little uncomfortably and made an excuse.
I blamed my seventh grade English teacher. Miss H. was what they called athletic (not a compliment in the early ’60s). She wore practical oxfords with anklets and had a short, boyish bob. Around her neck, a pearl clasp held her cardigan over her bony shoulders like a cape. Her sport was tennis, and she was known to be good at it. I seldom did any homework. I sat in the back of the classroom, and when she called on me, it was “MAR GEE,” with a hard G. I never corrected her, because she had such authority. I thought maybe she used the correct pronunciation.
“Mar Gee, go to the board and diagram number four.”
Moments later I was at the board drawing lines and words when I heard her shrill voice.
“MAR GEE, what is the subordinate clause modifying?” she said, striding across the linoleum, her Popeye-thick forearms slamming the eraser onto the board, dust flying into the air. It might have been hormonal – I was 12 going on 13 – but I had a headache every Thursday in her class.
One week she was at a tennis match, and our substitute read Robert Frost’s “A Road Not Taken” to us. I was so happy, I smiled, I relaxed, I was fascinated. Our assignment to write about the poem thrilled me. I wrote effortlessly, putting down ideas as fast as I could.
What finally galvanized me into doing something about my punctuation was when I sent a poem to a small press journal, and the editor wrote me that he didn’t even read my work because of errors. Other editors said things even less flattering. I looked forward to a general form letter.
Humbled and motivated, I embarked on a rapid, accelerated punctuation improvement program. I went to Powell’s and bought a truckload of books on grammar: Grammar Made Easy, Punctuation in 30 Days, Elements of Style …. When my grammar did not improve after buying the books, I mentioned this to a friend, and she said, “Well, did you read them?” I had to admit I had not opened them. I stopped sending out writing for a long time.
But I liked VoiceCatcher and thought it might be worth the risk. I sent in three poems, and one was accepted. But there was the punctuation issue. I wanted this to work out, but I knew my weaknesses. If someone without legs could make it to the finals of “Dancing with the Stars,” maybe I could get published.
I wrote to my poetry group colleagues to ask if they could please help me. One of the members was vacationing, and the other said she would get to it in a few days. A few days seemed too long, so I decided to give it a try. But one stanza in “Silence” baffled me. It had three ideas and I did not know how to connect the thoughts. Dashes seemed too strong, commas too subtle. Just for fun, I tried the semicolon. The dot over the comma, the semicolon that breaks the thought into a little pause, not huge, but not soft: just enough. I placed it and fell head over heels in love with punctuation. And it worked. Like a song, my poem needed that subtle dynamic and now, I could hear the music.
Margie Lee is a writer and artist living with her writer husband and two cats in SW Portland, Oregon. She exhibits her art work locally. She will be in a group show, “Figuration,” at Mel’s Frame Shop in Portland, from May through July 19, 2015 – showing her paintings done in acrylic. Margie writes about family and Pacific Northwest nature, and loves to combine writing and art. She teaches art part-time at the Rose Schnitzer Tower and is head of the artists group at St. James Lutheran Church.