Poetry Month

The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot

I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

In 1996, the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month as a way to bring attention to the importance that poetry plays in our lives.

Last year at this time, I wrote about four or five poems, sharing them each week with a friend, and we would then give each other suggestions for revision or offer an interpretation of how we read the poem.

We’ve agreed to do the same weekly sharing of a new poem during April this year, too, but I can’t find a subject that I want to write about. I know many poets are probably writing about quarantine and social distancing, but that’s not where my mind is as far as writing goes.

I signed up to receive daily writing prompts from Two Sylvias Press, and I’m planning to go back to them at some point, but I can’t find the release valve on my writing brain to let the words just come.

Instead, I catch myself staring out the window for long stretches, watching the new hickory leaves unfurl. I’ve been walking my dog and letting him get filthy in the pond where pollen pools on the surface like a film of a crushed hard boiled egg yolk. I’m washing my hands probably more than I need to, considering the raw, chapped patches on the left hand.

I’ve re-started my personal yoga practice finally, although I have taken a few Zoom classes. It’s hard for me to pin myself down to a specific time to practice now that the classes are streamed live. When I’m home, I don’t usually keep to a schedule.

But maybe a schedule is what I need, especially if I want to beckon my creative mind. Sitting myself at my desk or out on the back porch with a pen and a notebook every day, just like I roll out my mat. Yoga, meditation, and writing are interconnected for me. One leads to another.

As far as The Wasteland goes, last year I was emerging from a painful depression during April, and I agreed with Eliot’s first line that “April is the cruelest month,” though maybe it was for different reasons than his own intentions for writing.

This year April is also a cruel month. Just when the earth is greening in the Northern hemisphere, thousands of people are dying. It’s a sorrow that’s hard to reconcile with the season.

Persona Poems at Palm Beach Poetry Festival

It’s been a month since I returned from Delray and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival held there in the Old School Square, and since then I’ve barely looked at the five poems I started in Adrian Matejka’s workshop.

Matejka is not only a gifted poet, but he’s also a brilliant teacher. We started the week off by reading A. Van Jordan’s essay on ways to enter the writing process of a persona poem, and each day we wrote a different type of poem by following some of Jordan’s guidelines.

The Big Smoke, Matejka’s book-length persona poem collection, explores the life and relationships of boxing legend Jack Johnson. Matejka writes in the voices of Jack Johnson and the women in Johnson’s life, an ambitious project that took eight years of research and writing. It wound up as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a well-deserved honor.

In the workshop, he told us that the hardest poems for him to write were the ones in the voices of the women, and that he would never attempt to write in a woman’s voice again, not feeling able, artistically, to accurately portray a woman’s psyche in the first person.

Part of this discussion of whose voices to write in involved the subject of cultural appropriation. The week of the poetry festival, American Dirt launched, and with it, the controversy surrounding the white author’s choice to write in the first person about a migrant Latina woman and her struggles to cross into the US.

It was a timely example of the pitfalls of choosing to write in the voice of someone whose life is completely outside our own experiences. Maybe if author Jeanine Cummins had written in the third person, her book would have been more honest. Latinx writers felt justifiably angry that a white author would receive a six-figure advance to tell a story that wasn’t hers to tell.

All of this is to say that it’s no easy task to choose a voice to write in that’s also relevant to the times we’re living in. I tried to create the voice of the Mona Lisa, but gave her a sort of feminist mindset. I also wrote in the voice of a street tarot reader, a crystal ball, and Anne Boleyn, who was accused of applying witchcraft to seduce men who attended her in the court of Henry VIII.

The week in Delray went by in a blur and I was fairly exhausted the entire time, probably because we drove there from Atlanta in one day and didn’t arrive at our Airbnb until close to midnight. Delray is only an hour north of Miami, and has the unfortunate distinction of being close to Mar a Lago. While the festival was going on, the impeachment trial was, too. All of that was an uncomfortable tension buzzing in the background.

The Three Souls Tarot Prompt from POPcraft

Tarot Card Spread from a prompt at Pretty Owl Poetry

Pretty Owl Poetry is calling for submissions of poetry prompts based on the Tarot. I decided to write a poem based on their prompt, but going forward, I might try my hand at an original prompt.

[The Camino Spills Across the Highlands]

The Camino spills across the highland
after crossing Basque Country mountains.
Poppies constellate gilded barley fields,
blood-red blossoms fibrillating like hearts
against the sky. So close to the sun here.
The astonishment of flower-comets
wilts with the heat, the weight of all the miles,
if I can remember the way home, no map
but the riddles spelled in the stars.

Process:

I didn’t look up the traditional meaning behind the cards, but tried to intuit the actions in each one and told a little story that the cards reflected to me.

I’m in the middle of writing a collection of poems about a pilgrimage I took to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, so when I saw the Page of Pentacles, my mind went to the moors in Spain and the delight of seeing the poppies in the fields.

The following three-step, three-card prompt, “The Three Souls,” is by Kimberly Grabowski Strayer. Please go to https://prettyowlpoetry.com/2019/05/14/popcraft-the-three-souls/ for a complete description.

The words in boldface come from Kimberly’s prompt. The words in italics are my impressions of the cards.

1.Mind of the poem, Page of Pentacles: awe and childlike or youthful curiosity at the beginning of a journey. Finding a treasure in a field.

2.Structure (body)– The Ten of Wands: The burden of gathering all ten wands, leaning into the labor, struggling against the work. The poem is bunched together in ten lines of ten syllables each to reflect the number ten and also the bunched up wands the man is carrying.

3.Spirit— The Chariot: The future is an enigma (Sphinx) that draws the chariot. The stars above are his only guide. He is a messenger of the gods (caduceus, symbol of Hermes). He’s leaving the comforts of home behind, unafraid.

April, Poetry, Jericho Brown, and NaPoWriMo 2019

Along with the fiery nature of Aries and the blossoming of spring comes April and National Poetry Month in the US.

One of my main inspirations has been the poetry of Jericho Brown and his new collection, The Tradition.

His essay about invention (titled “Invention”) and how writing poetry was how he confronted the panic of possible death has also inspired me to write every day. Poetry is a means of survival.

I’ve been trying to write at least some lines of poetry every day as a challenge to extract myself from the mini-depression I went through this winter.

Winter was dark, rainy, muddy. Even in March, depression clung to me, like sticky hands holding me down.

When the sticky webs started to feel like a cocoon, I understood on a more personal level TS Eliot’s opening lines in The Waste Land:

   April is the cruellest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers

To cope with the intense melancholy and anxiety, I started thinking of the time between winter solstice and spring equinox as a period of germination.

I was a seed in protective darkness, no need for the light, even if I did crave sunlight and walked my dog whenever the sun was out, no matter how cold.

Once the clocks changed and the days grew longer in March, I wasn’t ready to emerge from the safety of my protective shell, the haven of my bed, the soft armchair, the warm kitchen and the making of soups.

Even though I’ve taken the semester off from teaching, an unpaid sabbatical so to speak since I’m an adjunct professor, I haven’t been working on my manuscript about my travels in Spain.

The stickiness is still there, but the fire is returning. I’ve been writing new, unrelated poems to revitalize my creativity.

Jericho Brown’s “Duplex” series and the form he has invented (read them in his new book!) have opened up more pathways for me and others. He is a true bard, an oracular young poet who keeps astounding the world with his human songs.

I also realize that it’s somewhat problematic that I’m using Jericho Brown’s wholly original poetic form because I am a white woman. I’ve lived a protected life. As Brown says about his form,

What is a Jericho Brown sonnet? Though I may not be, I do feel like a bit of a mutt in the world. I feel like a person who is hard to understand, given our clichés and stereotypes about people. So I wanted a form that in my head was black and queer and Southern. Since I am carrying these truths in this body as one, how do I get a form that is many forms?

In his essay he goes on to describe his process, explaining that his duplex form carries traces of the ghazal, the sonnet, and the blues. That the couplets grew from lines he had written and saved from as long as fifteen years ago.

What I want to make clear is that I’m writing in Jericho Brown’s form because I find it beautiful and musical, but I won’t try to profit from his inventions in any way, such as trying to publish a duplex in a poetry journal.

Here are my two attempts at the duplex, written over the last two days:

Everyday Mysticism

I walk to where the creek water pools
To see the smooth darkness of its surface

To see the smooth darkness of its surface
Is to behold a circle with no circumference

This circle with no circumference contains
A benevolent silence, a suspension of time

This benevolent silence, this suspension of time
Is what I’m seeking when I’m alone on the trail.

When I’m alone on the trail, the dark water
Stills, impenetrable, until I peer over the bridge

Peering over the bridge, a carnation tree weeps
Its petals onto the glassy skin of the creek

The pink petals fracture the surface–a mosaic–
My reflection where the creek water pools

***

I See Hawks

This day is a glass fishing float
Suspended in a net of clouds

Suspended in a net of clouds,
mineral smells of the river

In the mineral smells of the river
A hawk appears again. I’m tired

Of hawk sightings. I’m tired
Of omens, of signs that point to what?

Harbingers that point to what
I won’t fathom. A poem should have words

To fathom this–this net that suspends
The world, this day floating in blue glass

Pathway Through Depression by Christine Swint

Inter-National Poetry Month

This past week the semester cranked up again after Spring break, so I didn’t have as much time to write every day. I’m going to spend part of my day today revising my journey-to-nowhere rhyming poem from last week.

Instead of my own writing, I thought I’d share books I’ve read this week and other inspirations.

On long walks I’ve been listening to conversations about poetry on poet Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace. Her interviews with accomplished poets are intimate, in-depth, and engaging. So far I’ve listened to interviews with Sharon Olds and Tyehimba Jess.

Jess’s interview is particularly enlightening because it offers many pathways into gaining a better understanding of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Olio.  The interview is almost two hours long, but it’s captivating, especially if you have a copy of the book on your lap while listening.

In the interview Jess cites his TEDXTalk where he reads his sonnet sequence about the McKoy twins. Since he provides visuals, you don’t need a copy of the book to follow along.

After listening to Rachel Zucker’s long conversation with Sharon Olds, I felt liberated. Sharon Olds seems to live in a kind of poetic trance state that resonates with me. She speaks of how she pays attention to the fleeting thoughts that come to her, the thoughts we humans have a tendency to sweep under the rug. Her words gave me insight into how to go deeper into what I truly think about myself and the world and to try to put those thoughts into my writing.

I know I hold back a lot. The hardest part of writing and of living in general is to sift through received notions about the world and to instead open up to infinite possibilities. As Alan Watts states in his lecture series Out of Your Mind, the hardest part of life [and art] is “how to create a controlled accident.” Art is the interpretation of life as it is passes through the artist. Here’s a lecture called “How to Be a Creative Artist.”

Fourth Leg of the Journey-to-Somewhere Poem

Whenever I think of the word “NaPoWriMo” I confuse the write part with rhyme. I hear it as NaPoRhyme–O. I would like to get rid of the National part of this abbreviated term, because the word national has taken on sinister connotations in the era we are now living in. Poet Dave Bonta calls it  “(Inter-) National Poetry Month,” which I find much more inclusive and holistic.

In the spirit of my rhyme-O confusion, I’m continuing my just-for-the-fun-of-it rhyme scheme, trying not to censor myself. Here are today’s eight lines, still following the ABACCBCA scheme:

4.

Today I found the plaster Virgin with Child,
Her mountaintop avatar wound with plastic rosary beads
Left in offering. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
My father taught me to pray, but the incantations didn’t stick,
Maybe because of the good swift kick
He said I needed, and then gave, seeds
Of my future rebellions– Wiccan symbols, Celtic
Knots I traced in the dirt at Mary’s feet, the wind wild.

If you want to read the first three stanzas, go here and here.

The setting of this journey poem is the Camino de Santiago in the Pyrenees.

Getting Ready For April and National Poetry Month

I could spend an entire day navigating the links Maria Popova includes in her articles on Brain Pickings.

In this one, a letter Frida Khalo wrote to Georgia O’Keefe, Popova extolls the virtues of creating community through letter writing and sharing. She praises the compassion Khalo and O’Keefe showed each other when one of them was suffering, and uses their correspondence as evidence that artists don’t work in complete solitude. We thrive on support and love.

She links to Brian Eno’s concept of “scenius,” a play on the word “genius,” meaning a collective of ideas, an ecology of artists and thinkers who respond to each other and the world, which she found in the book Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon.

Reading these two articles has inspired me to get back to a practice of sharing my creative process rather than storing it privately until I’m ready to publish (even though I am, in fact, publishing it here).

The poem I’ll be sharing is raw, unfinished writing that I do as a ludic exercise. I may or may not come back to it. Perhaps I’ll cull a line or two from this writing. Or maybe I’ll like the finished result!

My latest just-for-the-fun-of-it project is based on a prompt from the book The Practice of Writing Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach, edited by Robin Behn.

This book is a treasure for anyone who wants to go deeper into their unconscious mind to reveal thoughts or feelings the waking mind refuses to acknowledge.

The prompt I’m working on is titled “A Journey to Nowhere” by poet and writer Susan Snively. Snively suggests beginning the poem with a predicament of some sort in which the speaker arrives at an unexpected location. The point is to interrupt our preconceived notions and let the poem take the poet on a journey, not the other way around.

Snively gives a few pointers about how to achieve a certain cohesion in what will be a long narrative poem. I’m following one of her suggestions by following an eight-line rhyme scheme:

ABACCBCA

My plan is to write a stanza a day during the month of April.

Here are my first two stanzas. I have no title and I don’t know where this poem will take me.

A shaft of light lusters the velvet green of hills
Like a woman’s hand smoothing pleats,
Soft as the delicate calm after taking nerve pills.
Look at me, I’m on top of the world
The child says. From between large clouds
A bird of prey soars like an omen. My heart beats
In my ears, from the climb, from the load
I carry, set aside for now. As the breath stills,

The mountains extend, like branches of mind,
Or mind attaches, an appendage of mountain.
The body thins here, as though it were a kind
Of muslin scrim between me, the air, the sun.
Now permeable, flapping like a gauze blouse in the breeze
clothes-pinned to a line, a ghost living with ease
Of movement, like the bird, the sun,
Tethered, but just barely, to the Pyrennes.
It’s enough to make me leave the body behind.

What I Need Is More Yoga

Tree in tree pose

Tree in tree pose

When I woke up yesterday morning the light in the room was still dim. The closed door, stained dark walnut, looked like an open portal, a deep black tunnel.

At the end of yoga class yesterday afternoon, when our teacher said to allow the mind to go into the deeper states of consciousness, this ink black portal, a door made of shadows, opened before me once again.

Corpse pose is a preparation for death, not a moment to fear, but rather a letting go. I slide into the velvety, warm blackness, this state of consciousness where poetry is born.

Open Water Swimmer’s Collage

IMG_6186

The Stockbridge Bowl, one of my favorite places to swim.

To get myself back into writing, I decided to compile different thoughts about the ocean by female swimmers, most of them open-water swimmers, and put them into a single poem, a kind of collage.

Open Water Swimmer’s Collage

To be in the azure blue as if
You’re breathing. The body, immersed,
Amplified, heavier and
Lighter at the same time.
Looking down miles and miles and miles,
The sea is like a person–like a child
I’ve known a long time.
I never feel alone when I’m out there.
You will forget who you are,
What you did in your life,
And which country you are from.
There’s a knowledge that you
Really are on edge here,
And that you can push yourself too far,
All the way across that vast,
Dangerous wilderness of an ocean.
When I swim in the sea I talk to it.
No matter how rough, cold, or deep,
The water is your friend.
We go in the pitch black of the night.
When we’re in the water,
We’re not in this world. You are a swimmer,
And whoever is next to you
Is a swimmer, too, all of us in the water.

 

During the Olympics, I paid close attention to the swimming events, especially to women swimmers. Yusra Mardini’s story and words inspired me. She’s an eighteen year-old Syrian woman who swam in the Rio Olympics for Team Refugee.

She and her sister , when Mardini was still seventeen, swam in the open sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos for three hours in 2015, pulling a dinghy, and saved themselves and twenty other people.

The other swimmers whose words I have included are:

Diana Nyad, first person to swim nonstop from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage;

Gertrude Ederle, first woman to swim across the English Channel;

Lynne Cox, open water swimmer, and author of  Swimming to Antarctica;

and Leanne Shapton, swimmer, writer, and author of the new memoir, Swimming Studies.

This kind of writing is called found poetry. As the Poetry Foundation explains, “Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems.”

 

 

After Yoga Writing Circle

Writing after practicing yoga and meditation is one of the best ways to release creativity. With a relaxed body and mind, we can touch our inner feelings. Writing with a group where we feel safe and nourished, we can take small risks with our writing and reveal heartfelt truths.

For the past six months or so, a group of us have been meeting once a month after our wonderful yoga teacher’s Saturday class to generate new writing. I’ve been leading the writing circle because of my certification with Amherst Writers and Artists, a writing circle method devised by Pat Schneider.

For the warm-up prompt, I read these lines from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening the knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

I wrote these lines based on the prompt:

Overflow

My heart is a bowl
that, today at least,
brims with anger.
Rage spills over the rim,
pulses into my chest, my throat.

But rather than opening my mouth,
I take to the street
and walk with my anger.
Inhaling the fresh fall air,
I release my bitterness.

The last yellow and orange leaves
hanging on the lowest branches
of a cottonwood tree
glitter in the breeze
like Tibetan prayer flags.

TreeCampus