Uncanny paneling

When you write a poem that resembles a spell, prayer, charm, curse, or blessing, are you trying to make something happen, and if so, what or how?

That’s what we talked about on the Uncanny Activisms panel I organized for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference last weekend (the conference as a whole was wonderful, especially the keynote by Camille Dungy). “We” from left includes Hyejung Kook, Jane Satterfield, Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Anna Maria Hong, Ashley M. Jones, and yours truly, talking with her hands again. Some brilliant tidbits I scribbled down from this brilliant cohort: Ashley remarking that all poems are spells; Anna Lena responding that spell-poems are the poemiest kind of poem, and speaking about how poems help us focus attention; Jane musing about shape-shifting through reading and writing, and how poetry can be a means to power, sometimes as an alternative when legal recourse isn’t working; Hyejung talking about poetry as an act of transformation (and about Icelandic fart curses, which I have yet to look up). I LOVED this conversation and it seems as if others did, too, which made me happy, as if we might be a small band of spellcasters setting out to fix the world through verse. If you want to join the effort, check out the amazing prompts I gathered from these writers for a pretty handout (less prettily listed below). We will be soliciting uncanny activist work for a future issue of Shenandoah, but for the moment, note that poetry subs open today (11/15-12/15), and there’s a special prize for Virginia poets: $1000 for the Graybeal-Gowan award, no entry fee, judged by Beth and me. Everything submitted will be considered for general publication as well as the prize. I’m excited to start reading but also a little worried about managing the deluge. My novel galleys just came in, and my students need lots of conferences this time of year, and I’m trying to squeeze in time to apply for book promotion opportunities…oy.

In other news, my review of Franny Choi’s amazing collection Soft Science is up on Strange Horizons, and my poem “Spring Rage” has been posted by storySouth. Thanks to the kind and careful editors at both magazines.

I’ve been down despite all the good things happening, at least partly because I’m not finding enough time to rest and read and think and play. I didn’t bring my laptop to the conference and that gave me respite, but Monday morning I was neck-deep again as soon as I walked into the office. I’m trying to take better care of myself, and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t start with one of these prompts. Writing poetry tend to channel the simple magic, at least, of temporary self-transformation: I feel calmer when I’m immersed in the work, possibly BECAUSE there’s so little money or prestige involved. Hope you get some drafting time, too.

Counting-Out Rhyme, from Anna Lena Phillips Bell
a. Choose a category of being- or thing-in-the-world—plants local to or new to your region; particularities of the way your family or community speaks; geologic formations or soil types near you; songs from a specific tradition; birds or small mammals or insects. List as many beings or things in this category as you can think of.
 
b. Optionally, write a paragraph describing what you’ve chosen, as well as any threats to it that exist. Save this text as a plain-text file, and feed it into the n-gram generator available at http://bit-player.org/extras/drivel/drivel.html, created by Brian Hayes. Copy the resulting text into another file, print out the pages, and mine the text for new words that speak to what you’re writing about. You may wish to search for rhyme-words within the text; or you may simply highlight words you like.
 
c. Write a counting-out rhyme using the words and phrases from your list. If you’ve used the n-gram generator to create new words, incorporate some of these as well. Write in lines of trochaic tetrameter (or choose another meter and stick to it); optionally, end each stanza with a line of trochaic dimeter. Where pronunciation of a neologism is unclear, use the meter to help guide readers toward how you hear it. Employ a rhyme scheme (aaa, bbb, ccc; abab cc, dede ff, ghgh ii; or similar), however slant your rhymes may be.
 
d. Your poem will evoke one layer of the landscape or community its elements are part of. For each being or thing you include, imagine how it helps make a portrait of that layer in the time during which you’ve experienced it. Read your completed poem to the beings or things it includes. Read it to other people. Revise based on these readings and imaginings.
 
e. Memorize your revised poem: make it part of your body and mind.
 
Ambitious poem, from Lesley Wheeler: Think about something you desperately want to achieve, an aspiration you may be embarrassed to admit. Imagine how you would achieve this goal and imagine taking those steps; consider who might have the power to help and imagine them giving that help. Write a fourteen-line poem in the future tense describing this process. The first word should be “let” and you should repeat the first line exactly, or almost exactly, at the poem’s close. Weave in references to: a so-called weed or wild plant you noticed recently; a scent that makes you feel good; and something other-than-human that produces a humming sound. (adapted from a prompt by Oliver de la Paz)

Self-invocation Poem, from Hyejung Kook: In this poem, we are going to name, invoke, and invent our most expansive self. Start by doing some research into your given name–how it was chosen, etymology, other people who share it, etc. If you prefer, do this work with a different name that calls to you. From your research, choose the three words that resonate most powerfully and incorporate these words, a color, an animal, and a scientific/historical fact that fascinates you. Use “In my wildest dreams, I” at least three times and allow yourself all the possibility the phrase grants you. Once your draft is complete, remove the phrase “In my wildest dreams,” from the poem.  

Another possibility is to turn the naming-invocation outward, using the phrase “In my wildest dreams, you” while writing.

Po Go, from Anna Maria Hong: This exercise can be harnessed to jumpstart a new project, clear the deck, meditate on a question, or find a new question to guide your writing now.
 
1.   Designate 15 minutes of your day to this exercise for 40 days. Ideally, do this exercise before you speak to or interact with another human being each day (dogs and cats, OK), but if this is not possible, allocate another time free of distractions.
2.   Ideally, also designate a place for this exercise.
3.   Begin each session with an invocation to the “gods” of poetry—whichever spirits might be enlisted to help you—household objects, ancient deities, your ancestors, etc.
4.   Begin writing this invocation as a list: “I call on the bedside lamp, Jupiter’s moons, and the turnips in the fridge to assist me in my writing today.”
5.   Then, free-write for the rest of the session and/or pick up threads from previous sessions (without looking at the previous entries).
6.   Stop writing after 15 minutes.
7.   Repeat for 40 days, and then and only then, review your writings.
 
from Ashley M. Jones: Think of an experience you’ve had that you wish others could experience to empathize with you—maybe it’s a struggle or a pain, or, maybe, even, more surprisingly, a joy that’s unique to your life. Try to think of something that, if experienced, would change the reader/spell recipient’s view or prejudice or oppressive mindset against you. Write a poem commanding them to feel that thing, focusing primarily on specific image. Take photographs with your words. Find the feeling, down to the hair. Your poem might be 10 lines, and it might include each sense (that is, The Five…or Six if you’d like). 
 
from Jane Satterfield: Select a natural organism that you’ve admired or overlooked. Learn more about its species and life cycle; appearance, texture, smell. What are its beneficial or dangerous properties? Associations and attributes? What role has it played in legend, lore, and in myth?  
 
Use tercets to weave your new knowledge of this organism into a poem that purges anger against someone or something that has hurt you, or that serves as a means of countering some injustice in your life or in the larger culture. Consider the way a curse can voice an appeal for restitution: a poem that begin as a curse can banish the harm you’ve experienced. Alternately, consider the way a curse can release the harm of the experience and turn the poem toward forgiveness and healing.              

Writing the motherland

“How many of you,” Betsy asked the audience, “think you know your mother’s mind, maybe better than she knows herself?”

Whoops, I thought, raising my hand. That’s arrogant of me. But trying to read my mother’s mind was one of the most urgent and constant occupations of my childhood and teenage years, and I’ve kept up that imaginative work, writing poems from her perspective in Heterotopiaand eighteen months ago, trying to negotiate her into hospitalizations she was resisting. “She’s English” is one of the ways I’ve explained it to others and myself–meaning concealment of suffering is an ingrained impulse with her, forcing me into detective mode. But of course it’s not just that. Many of my friends report the same frustrated efforts at maternal telepathy. And I pass silence down the generations when I clamp my own mouth shut. Sometimes I so fear saying something wrong to my daughter that I say nothing which is, of course, another harmful message.

Early on, my daughter became my very best mind-reader. “You have a tell,” she coolly informed me when she was seven. “When you lie, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence.” I was gobsmacked, still am, and think of her every time I try to conceal my own woes but my voice slides up an octave.

borderlands-draftMother’s Day is not far off, but mothering is also on my mind because I just got back from the CityLit Festival in Baltimore, where I was participating in a celebration of Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk. Laurie had flown down from Canada for the weekend and read from her contribution, as did Baltimorean Betsy Boyd and Marilyn Moriarty, a Hollins professor I’d somehow never met. Jane played moderator and finished up with a poem by Rishma Dunlop. It was an intense reading, because it’s an intense book. No Hallmark pink aisle fake news here. Mothering is intensely complicated, as is being a daughter, and the many border-crossings addressed in these pieces tend to fray mother-daughter connections still further. If anyone protests that it’s all sweetness, listen for the tell.

When it was my turn, I talked about motherhood being, for me at least, an occasion for constant dread and peril. I’ve been reading the book in small doses–all the poems first, and now the prose–and it’s clear I’m not alone. I just finished Camille T. Dungy’s essay “A Brief History of Near and Actual Losses,” a riveting account of visiting west Africa with her not-quite-three-year-old daughter, who knows a slave dungeon when she sees one. I recommend it, and the whole collection, strongly.

I remember chasing toddlers vividly, but to my surprise, that constant state of vigilant panic never stops. It just changes. Some of it is totally irrational. I once told my 13 year old not to shower until we got back from our walk in case he slipped and hit his head and drowned, and he really gave me an earful. But the same kid, now 16, has been having migraines forever while we wait for the neurologist appointment, and my daughter is planning a summer internship in Siberia. I can talk myself out of full-bore terror about these scares, but it’s right to be cautious, to keep asking questions and paying attention. As they get bigger and more competent, so does the field of risk.

Anyway, at this lovely event, I met the fear head-on. I chose to read Marilyn L. Taylor’s sonnet “To the Mother of a Dead Marine”–a poem that represents a parent’s nightmare–and “Zebra” by January Gill O’Neil, a fierce encouragement to her son to “Raise those ears. Kick your legs,” triumphing over people who would diminish him. I also read my own contribution to the collection, the alarmingly titled “Abortion Radio,” also collected in RadiolandIt features not just worry but the preemptive guilt I always feel, framed by testimonies heard on a religious radio station on the way back from Lynchburg late one night. It owes something, I’m sure, to the famous and much greater abortion poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton, but I don’t know what. A sense of death’s closeness, maybe. The terrible mixture of power and powerlessness mothers feel.

Abortion Radio

God told me and I did not listen, the tinny
speakers lament. Outside the car, ghost boles
of oaks float by. Brown leaves jump up
from the mountain road, swirl down again. I felt
something pass, I caught it, my baby. Tiny
hands, skin translucent. Every stump resembles
a deer that’s poised to leap. My friend just hit
a doe last night, driving home from a conference,
having missed her son’s bedtime for three
nights running. Her first thought: I killed a baby.
She stood in my office door to tell the story,
her eyes pinking up as she laughed at herself.
Shortwave talk refracts through me while I
tune in a stronger signal. A spouse has put
the kettle on, and children sleep in nests
of pastel belief. The deer my friend struck
lay down by the faded line at the verge of the road.
Its sides fluttered fast and then it died.
It went somewhere. Everyone goes somewhere.

The thing about April

My writing ambitions for National Poetry Month were NOT going well. The end of Winter Term–final classes, visiting writers, grading–doesn’t sound like a good time to reestablish a daily practice, but it has worked for me before. I love spring, when the natural world changes so rapidly from week to week, so when, like this year, I’m not booked to teach our short May term, I tend to feel invigorated and optimistic. Plus, I’d written much less than usual this winter because work was particularly stressful. Partly good stuff, like running a successful search, and partly bad stuff, like being on the receiving end of my university’s familiar old blaming-the-victim culture. But a break is in sight. I thought my chances of making poems happen were decent.

Not so much! Energetically avoiding writing, and especially submissions, for the first half of April did turn me into a dynamo of productive procrastination. I graded with admirable efficiency, got a checkup and a haircut, etc etc. But I avoided the blank page entirely or extruded unsuccessful poems painfully. (That nasty verb “extruded”–I know you don’t like it, but it fits.)

The work is starting to come, finally, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be (meaning, overtly political). Older and more personal material is coming to light. Well, okay.

A frank conversation over lunch with a good friend helped. So did an overnight escape to the Peaks of Otter lodge in the Blue Ridge, where somehow we had never been. The weather’s been gorgeous, sunny days with just an edge left of winter’s coolness, flowers everywhere. We hiked up Harkening Hill, sat on the balcony overlooking Abbott Lake, ate plenty, slept hard. The next morning Chris and Cam climbed the still more strenuous Sharp Top trail while I walked the lake path, a poem coming together in my head. Since then, ideas are popping: oh, I’ve never written about that, or that, or that.

The submissions work is still languishing but there’s hope…and I have some readings coming up, all of which involve new and old friends. All are free and open to the public.

Tues April 18: 7:30 pm, The Colonnades in Charlottesville, VA with Sara Robinson and Seth Michelson

Sun April 23: 5-7 pm, Pale Fire Brewery in Harrisonburg, VA–just one poem here in honor of Leona Sevick‘s book launch for Lion Brothers

Sat April 29th: 3 pm, CityLit Festival in Baltimore, MD (11 West Mt. Royal Ave) with Jane Satterfield, Betsy Boyd, Marilyn Moriarty and Laurie Kruk, in celebration of the anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland

I’ll leave you with just a stanza from a powerful debut collection I read on the balcony overlooking Abbott Lake: The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded by Molly McCully Brown. It begins a poem called “Where You Are (III),” and it sounds pretty much like the painful, hopeful spring I’ve been having.

The thing about the Shenandoah
is everything is always bending
its knees toward ruin or preparing
to rise from the ash.

Poetry at the Border: Jane Satterfield

I hereby launch an intermittent feature of this blog–“Poetry at the Border.” Each post in this series will focus on a poet who worries some kind of threshold. Borders of various kinds are always relevant to poetry–crossings in genre, sound, language, and psychological states as well as of national/ cultural identities and traditions–but this topic has assumed so much political urgency lately that it never leaves my mind.

satterfield bookI chose Jane Satterfield to kick off this feature because I’m reading her excellent new collection, Apocalypse Mix, available now from Autumn House. I’ve been following Jane’s work for years, admiring not only her verse collections but her inventive prose in Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter Press). (Jane and I share similar transatlantic family connections and semiformalist lyric dress sense, plus she writes about motherhood and rock’n’roll–what’s not to love?) Apocalypse Mix is a book about tricky proximities, the foremost probably being the author’s childhood near Andrews Air Force base, as the daughter of a British mother and an American air force reservist. Many poems address war and migrancy head-on. The porous boundary between past and present is also of urgent interest and, more surprisingly, between human and other-than human animals, in an arresting sequence about the military use of dogs, pigeons, horses, and other creatures during the Great War (“Bestiary for a Centenary”).

I asked Jane to describe a border that’s important to her and to her writing, and explain why. Here’s her response and a poem.

Years before the current travel ban that continues to play out in the courts and in the IMG_2289.JPGnews, I drafted an early version of this poem. I couldn’t shake the memory of the summer day in London in 1995 when I filed for an American passport for my UK-born daughter, and a stranger—a Muslim woman whose command of English was limited—reached across the cultural divide with a kindness that shows what unites us as women, daughters, mothers. As a dual US/UK citizen myself—I’m the daughter of an American service man and British mother of Irish descent—I often look at ways that this legacy plays out in the maternal body and in the larger body politic.

The borders we draw on maps and carry in our minds can empower us or forge division.

Although we gravitate toward tribes that signal safety and belonging, the human story is the story of migration—one where crossing borders both real and metaphorical reshapes our collective destiny.

Triptych

I had a day’s Underground pass, forms
to be filed for your passport. Soon,
we’d fly back to the States
if your paperwork was in order.
Your father stood watch in the embassy, ready
to call us in when needed, while I wheeled
you ‘round the garden in summer’s
equatorial heat. I shifted the sunshade
over your face.
Down the path, a stranger neared,
shopping bags in her hand, head scarf
adorned with flowers, petals scattering,
light and dark.

In this time before fear was everywhere,
what was the reason she caught my gaze?

§

Nearly two decades on, my screen flickers with images
of crowds and crusades, flags set aflame,
placards facing off outside the same American embassy:
“Afghanistan’s the graveyard of soldiers!” “If you want
Sharia, move to Saudi!” Rage tilts toward
extremes. Citizens are advised to review
the Worldwide Caution, stay current
with media coverage. The camera pans across
the roiling crowd, one side against the other: Londoners
who’d banish all immigrants, Muslim protesters
garbed in white.
                                   How to speak
of what we share, what separates us?

If there’s a woman in that crowd,
I don’t see her,

§
but I remember the day
I waited with the pram, how you blinked
as I pulled back the sunshade and you tugged
your tiny bonnet, fist clenched unfurling.
In time’s reflecting pool,
water gathers, builds to spill . . . That stranger,
alone, hesitant, reached in to touch your face—
What was her past? A dream of mosquito nets,
acoustic flashings of rain? The cardamom pods
she’d bought for her mother?
She saw
a mum with a pram and neared, touching
the face of a stranger’s baby, smiling
as she said beautiful,
as she said blessed.

*There are some indented half-lines in this poem that WordPress won’t indent–apologies for the vagaries of blog formatting–but I trust this poem’s acoustic flashings still scintillate.

Jane Satterfield has published five books, including Apocalypse Mix, winner of the 2016 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of an NEA poetry fellowship, the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize, Ledbury Festival Poetry Prize, and more. With Laurie Kruk, she is co-editor of the multigenre anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (Demeter Press). Satterfield is married to poet Ned Balbo and lives in Baltimore where she is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland.

Poetry by the Sea, Pt. 2: Seams showing

pbs3

“I’ve quit hoarding,” Kimiko Hahn said at her reading, “and now collect myself.” I, on the other hand, was hoarding good lines–hers was one of many I collected last week in a little notebook bound with blue thread. My tattered Moleskin is beginning to fill with quotes and drafts and lists and spiral doodles–and I gathered a variety of each at the second annual Poetry by the Sea conference, as I began to describe in my last post.

Some highlights: Jon Tribble, in a panel on publishing, reminding us that a good poetry book drives you to keep turning pages. Listening to him (an editor who personally reads a massive number of mss annually), I scribbled almost illegibly, with my sprained right wrist: “How does every poem reward you for being there?” That’s a good thing to think about, the flip side to the need for suspense in poetry, a subject I wrote about here a few months ago.

Alicia Stallings charged me up similarly by reading poems about the migrant crisis in Greece–work that could not have felt more urgent. Ange Mlinko commented during her lecture, “At Sea,” “how frequently the classroom is a site of humiliation”–a sobering thought for someone who wants to foster inclusive spaces for pondering art and speaking adventurously. I was pleasurably startled by a reading pairing Mahogany L. Brown, one afternoon, with Gregory Pardlo–an unlikely duo. Poems in Pardlo’s physical voice were funnier than I’d realized–especially some new work about raising children–and when Brown’s teenage daughter accompanied her mother’s verse by singing a cappella, I wasn’t the only listener who broke out in goosebumps. In another event, Marilyn Taylor made me laugh out loud and Joshua Mehigan’s intense long poem, “The Orange Bottle,” riveted my attention almost painfully. There are many, many ways to make people want to keep listening.

I also kept recording scraps of conversations, mostly with other women, about the life hinges we’re occupying–worrying over ailing mothers and struggling daughters. “Valerian tea for anxiety,” reads one page. I think I jotted that prescription in the meditation garden, looking out at the seam between the blue sky and the blue water. I have notes from Jane Satterfield’s memoir panel and also about the brands of cute-yet-comfortable shoes she was wearing. I drafted a couple of poems and a couple of flash fiction pieces, too, although I wasn’t enrolled in any workshops. The combination of gorgeous ambient language with a borderworld landscape–that’s just irresistible.

One intermittent list consisted of advice I quilted together more deliberately. Tell me something good, I kept asking, about approaching the age of fifty. I’ll leave you with some answers, as well as an invitation. If you’re in the D.C. area, please consider coming to the launch of of the annual Joaquin Miller series, this coming Sunday, June 5th, in Rock Creek Park (5200 Glover Rd NW, Washington, DC 20015). I’ll be reading along with some young contest winners, and I believe there’s an open mic, too.

Till then, the pluses of middle age:

  • It’s better than old age.
  • I care less about what other people think.
  • Fruitfulness. So many things you work for over decades finally come ripe.
  • Now I HAVE to cultivate a balance between body and mind; my body breaks down otherwise.
  • I have a deep knowledge of my own work rhythms now.
  • Clarity–the unimportant stuff drops away.
  • Time seems more limited and precious.

The last one I’m feeling. Carefree fruitful balanced clarity, hmm–here’s hoping I figure that stuff out before September’s wave drags me out deep again.

joaquin miller flier