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

Sonnenizio after a Line from Neruda

True to my word, I have eked out a bit of time during the holidays to try some of the craft tips and writing prompts in The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward.

If I feel reluctant to put my thoughts on paper, I sometimes take refuge in a received form. Traditional forms are puzzles to work out. Formal verse is a constraint that forces me to look for le mot juste.

To learn about how to write a sonnenizio, a term Kim Addonizio coined to name her variation on a sonnet, go to page 61 in The Crafty Poet.

Lockward includes Addonizio’s sonnenizio in the sound section of her book. In this form, Addonizio borrows a line from an existing sonnet. She then chooses a word from that line to repeat in the subsequent 13 lines.

The reason Lockward shares this prompt is to encourage the poet to see how repetition of a word or words in a poem can influence the poem’s music. In my poem, I chose a line from Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to García Lorca,” translated into English by Donald D. Walsh.

Even though Neruda’s poem is not a sonnet, the line I chose contains 10 syllables in English, and so I worked it into this sonnet variation.

Walsh has translated the line in English “when to sing you shake arteries and teeth”; Neruda’s original line is “cuando para cantar sacudes las arterias y los dientes.”

Sonnenizio after a Line from Neruda

When to sing you rattle doors from their frames,
your singing jolts the marrow in my bones.
When to sing you shake arteries and teeth,
your singing fells the glass from my windows.
A draft hisses through my rooms. An owl’s song
fibrillates the night with an odd birdsong,
songs of darkness, songs of a single note.

When you open your throat to sing, starlings
singsong their shadows across the gray sky.
A chorus of poplars sing their dried leaves
over a blues-singing sunset. Boulders,
their lichen mouths split wide, appear to sing
as they gasp for air, a thin winter song,
a song-fraught December, a solstice psalm.

Writing this poem was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I kept thinking of García Lorca, who was assassinated by the Spanish Civil Guard during the Spanish Civil War. And it was during the solstice when I was writing, the skies gloomy and quick to turn dark.  But the hardest part was repeating variations of “to sing.”

The other reservation I have with this poetic form as I applied it in my poem is that, apparently, a sonnenizio is a parody of the sonnet in the same way that Billy Collins’ paradelle is a parody of the villanelle. By keeping García Lorca in mind, there was no way I would be writing ironically.

December Sky, by Christine Swint

December Sky, by Christine Swint

Ekphrasis

Writing to an image, especially a painting, helps me find inspiration. Ekphrasis, from ancient Greek, is a description of a visual work of art. Usually, ekphrastic poetry describes a painting, but some poems might enter a film or a sculpture.

Recent MacArthur Genius grant winner Terrance Hayes has a 20-part poem titled “Arbor for Butch,” written to a sculpture series by Martin Puryear. Hayes also experiments with form in this poem, as it is a pecha kucha.

The surreal paintings of Mexican artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington have sparked my creativity. My most recent ekphrastic poem, “The Women Have Gathered to Welcome Him Back to Himself,” explores a painting by Leonora Carrington titled The Temptation of St. Anthony. 

I’m pleased and honored that the journal Ekphrasis chose to publish this poem in their Fall/Winter 2014 issue, and that they have nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. St. Anthony  lives on through poetry!

Temptation of St. Anthony by Leonora Carrington

Hike: A Noiseless Patient Spider With Turkey Buzzards

Today’s hike was Pigeon Hill trail in Kennesaw. I only did half the hike today because I got a late start. To the visitor’s center from Burnt Hickory Road is 2.5 miles (five miles there and back), but I stopped at Little Kennesaw and turned around so that I would have time to meet my friends for a poetry reading.

Today is Walt Whitman’s 195th birthday, and to honor his poetry some Poetry Atlanta folks have organized a non-stop reading of all 52 songs from Song of Myself.

I was thinking of Whitman as I picked my way across boulders and rocks toward the summit. When I sat on a lichen-covered ledge to take a rest in the shade, a tiny red spider floated in the air next to me, spinning an invisible thread that helped it move up and down, and I remembered Whitman’s poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”
A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

***

I wish I could experience the same confidence Whitman exudes in the capability of his soul. That’s why I go hiking and meditate, swim in open bodies of water, practice yoga. It’s a path outward that circles inward. Today I felt like most at peace watching the turkey buzzards circling the tree tops, until one swooped close, it’s red face angled toward some dead creature.

 

Found Poem

words from my diary, 11/11/1981

The pupils of my eyes
are very small,
as if the dark spots
were nostrils.
When I look at them
in the mirror, I feel
cold and ugly.
I float in and around
whatever is bothering
me without knowing
what it is.

Process

The above passage is taken directly from my diary, which I wrote on 11/11/81, 6:30 pm, in Athens, Georgia. Like many twenty-one year olds, I turned to my journal whenever I was feeling blue. I took the passage and shortened the phrases, turning it into a poem of sorts. I liked the image of pupils like nostrils.

Most of the diary entries from that year are about my relationship with my boyfriend. Here’s a quote referring to him.

I lie. I don’t love. I am not kind to people. Conrad was right in his idea that people are dark and savage in their hearts. My heart feels like lead in my chest. Do I dramatize these feelings? Maybe I’m feeling sorry for myself because I’m not making any progress with developing my thoughts and finding an art. The thought of being an artist has been in my mind for a long time, but now I know I’ll never be one because my personality is two-dimensional, as Stephan would call it.

Stephan is what I’m calling my boyfriend at the time. I don’t want to say his real name, because he comes off here as being very critical of me. In truth he was a fun-loving, creative person. I was suffering from depression during our time together but didn’t realize it. He was very patient with me, for the most part, as patient as any twenty-three year old guy could be. I cried a lot and was moody, and, like I wrote in the found poem, I had no idea why I was so sad. I’d start fights with him just to have something to blame my feelings on. I’m glad I finally broke that pattern. It only took me thirty years!

Athens, 1983

I remember when we took these pictures. We were walking around Athens, looking for interesting shots, but also saying goodbye. We would both be leaving soon, Stephan for Stockholm, and I for Madrid. I still love Athens, and remember my time there as magical. I think anyone who lived there during the late seventies and early eighties feels the same way.

me, 1981, in Central Park

A group of us drove from Athens to NYC in one weekend to hear the Side Effects play at the Peppermint Lounge. Or it could have been CeeBee GeeBee’s. I went to both of those clubs to hear bands from Athens.