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.

Today’s Walk

I’m sitting at the top of Monument Mountain, the place where Herman Melville met Nathanial Hawthorne for the first time.

It’s a hot day for the Berkshires. I’m sweating in the muggy air, but a slight breeze refreshes my skin. This humidity is nothing like the pizza oven heat of Georgia.

While going up the mountain I took a picture of a log bridge–I’m a little afraid of crossing narrow bridges, even when there’s nothing but a creek below. So I took a picture to illustrate the obstacles I’m forever confronting.

  
When I went to look for my phone to take another picture, this time of the rocky ascent to the summit, I realized I had left my phone at the log bridge.

So back down the mountain I went. A couple had seen my phone in the ground where it must have slipped out of my backpack (or what is more probable is that I missed the pocket completely, dropping the phone silently on the pine straw and moss covered path).

While climbing back up to where I am now, I thought I would maybe start leaving my smart phone behind when I go on these long walks. I usually put my phone in airplane mode, and I don’t check email, but I do use it to take pictures.  

So here I am on the summit, thinking about Herman Melville and typing into a WordPress app. I read that the day he came here with a gathering of local literary types, it rained, and he spent a good while describing to Nathaniel Hawthorne the intricacies of manning a whaling ship.

The trail here is well maintained. The granite and schist stones form a staircase that allows the hiker to reach the top fairly easily, but I doubt the rocks were arranged so artfully when Melville walked here. 

The air was the same, the flora and fauna the same, and some of the views. From where I am now, I can see Monument Mountain high school, where someone has written the name Maia in large white letters on the lawn in front of the school. Even from this height I can see the heart over the letter i in place of a dot. Someone loves Maia. 

To enter the nineteenth century imagination, I think I would have to abandon iPhone technology for a while. I don’t even know how Melville would have traveled from his Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield  to Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. Horse and wagon maybe? I know he liked to camp and was an avid outdoorsman. 

He became depressed after Moby Dick didn’t sell, and he turned to alcohol. This is a lesson in not tying one’s ego to one’s art. I don’t blame Melville–he had to support his family, and he had wanted to do so by writing. Art and business don’t mix. Robert Graves said something to the effect : “There’s no money in poetry, and no poetry in money.”

   
 

Travelogues, Steinbeck, and Identity

I only like to read travelogues when I am planning a trip myself, otherwise I wish I were the one taking the journey and I become impatient to hit the road.

I can relate to John Steinbeck’s brand of wanderlust, which he describes in the first chapter of Travels with Charley as an “ancient shudder” brought on by  “the sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping sound of hooves on pavement… .”

Travels with Charley begins with Steinbeck’s explanation of a secret impetus for his cross-country road trip at the age of 58–a heart attack he suffered the year before. He did not want to succumb to what he calls “a second childhood” of being treated like “an elderly baby.”

He goes on to describe the kind of man he has always been up until the heart attack:

For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slowed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby.

He never told his wife about this aspect of his journey, assuming that she intuited his unspoken reason for going. I suppose, after the heart attack, he had to curtail some of his rowdy behavior while still indulging what he refers to as his violent male nature, hence the road trip.  How much of this so-called violence is inherent in a man, and how much of it is learned as an idealized version of what a man should be?

I’ll be honest, one of my reasons for hiking the Camino de Santiago is to be outdoors  for two months with no chores or housework to do. Yes, I’d rather walk 20 miles a day with 20 pounds on my back than clean up after others.

Unlike Steinbeck, I am not taking this trip to regain my sense of identity; I’m leaving my home to lose my old identity of good mother, good wife, good teacher, good daughter, good sister, even if it’s only for the time I spend on the trail. I want to go beyond skin-deep  reality where I play my roles, where I am a shadow of myself bending from the weight of skin-deep rules. Maybe I am regaining my identity, but it’s the one I was born with, the one we all share in common.

The Spirit Hawk, my pack

The Spirit Hawk, my pack

Fountain of Youth

I propose a euphemism for “anti-aging” products: “youth enhancing.” A gorgeous 21-year-old at Origins was trying to huckster her old lady serums, but I told her they don’t work and that I’m proof thereof.

She said I was entitled to my personal opinion. I should have told her the tanning bed she seems to frequent would one day turn her skin to beef jerky no matter what lotions she applies.

But that would have been mean. I know she was just trying to make a sale. I bought the nighttime cold cream and a cleanser, and spent more that the total of my gift card, but I refused to give in to her pitch about wrinkles. Didn’t George Orwell say “At fifty, everyone gets the face he [or she] deserves?

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Review of Clamor by Elyse Fenton

All winter and into spring I’ve been reading and writing about poetry in the courses I’m taking. One of my assignments was to write a review of a prize-winning first book, and I chose to review Clamor.

As the University of Wales web site states,  the Dylan Thomas Prize “is awarded to the best eligible published or produced literary work in the English language, written by an author under 30.” Fenton is the first American to win this prestigious, international award, which comes with a prize close to $50,000.00 dollars.

Clamor also won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize in 2009, selected by poet D.A. Powell.

Subject Matter

Part of what intrigues me about Fenton’s work is the subject matter–she has written about her experience of living far away from her young husband while he was deployed in Iraq following the 911 terrorist attack.  The theme of young love and the Iraq War gives her project a heightened sense of relevance that one does not always expect from an emerging artist. The collection, which revolves around a central, narrative theme, places the project squarely within current trends of poetry books that also tell a longer story, such as Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard or Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno’s Slamming Open the Door.

Continue reading

Retro Classroom

This photo is of a classroom down the hall from the room where I teach freshman composition. The glass beakers and vials caught my attention, along with the walnut cabinets and brass handles.

My room has a black laboratory table in front of a chalkboard. The table acts as a barricade between the students and me, which in my high school teaching days would have provided a modicum of relief.  Their wooden desks rest on metal bases that are bolted to the floor. One boy, who is quite thin, complained that his seat was too small.

The laboratory table has a sink with running water. After class one day, a girl turned on the water to see if  the faucet worked, and it did. An instructor who used to teach English in this room told me the first thing he would do upon entering the classroom was to turn the water on and wash his hands.

There’s a smell of damp air ducts and old linoleum. The building used to be a parking deck. The inner ramp where the cars would drive is now a walkway.

Art Matters.

Here’s what I wrote to my representatives about the controversy surrounding  the puny 50 million dollar budget devoted to the arts that some conservatives would like to ax.

February 12, 2011

[recipient address was inserted here]

Dear [recipient name was inserted here],

As your constituent, I hope you will vote against cuts to funding for the
National Endowment for the Arts during consideration of the FY 2011
appropriations package.

A society without the arts would be a world where true feelings are
ignored or repressed. The people need the arts in order to be whole.

The same creativity that sent the first humans to the moon serves as the
bedrock for the arts-patchwork quilts, ballads, landscape paintings and
stand-up comedy mean as much to people as solar energy.

What about film, documentaries, storytelling, music, dance? Aren’t these
endeavors part of what makes a society thrive?

My son is an artist. As a high school senior he has spent four to five
hours a day outside of his regular school day to prepare a portfolio for
a professional art program. Taking away grants and fellowships would send
a very negative message to hardworking, talented young students like my
son.

Sincerely,

Christine Swint

Wind and Poetry

The howling wind tonight reminds me of Tess Durbeyfield when she wanders across the moors dressed in rags.  I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles around the same time that Nastassja Kinski appeared in Tess, a 1979 film adaptation of the novel,  but I haven’t yet seen the 2009 Masterpiece Theater version. Good times await!

Thinking of Tess brings to mind the nineteenth century and persona poems, both of which I love, and although The Suitable Girl (Pindrop Press, 2011) contains much more than period piece poems, there are some delightful ones to savor among the rich variety of poesy in Michelle McGrane’s latest collection.

The photo of the wine and my gorgeous copy of The Suitable Girl was taken at Kavarna, a coffee bar in Decatur, GA, near midtown Atlanta. The book is the first project from Jo Hemmant’s Pindrop Press. What a lovely debut collection! The Suitable Girl, in addition to Michelle McGrane’s wonderful imagination and gift for words,  reflects Jo’s attention to detail and her excellent taste in poetry. Jo, a fine poet in her own right, has a keen eye for the printed word and a well-tuned ear for verse.

Southern Snow

Everyone loves to make fun of how the South shuts down after just a few inches of snow, but believe me, you don’t want drivers like me on the road when there’s slush and ice. I’m the first to admit I would be drifting all over the place.

Schools have cancelled classes, which means most parents are in despair from cabin fever. But my son and Film Critic (a.k.a. my husband) are “stuck” in Chicago at a four star hotel near Lakeshore Drive. There’s about four inches of snow, but the city of big shoulders can handle that kind of dusting.

I’ve spent my free time watching Mad Men, knitting, walking the dogs, fine tuning my syllabus, and checking Facebook status updates (most of which are either complaints, boasts, or rants. No offense.)

There’s nothing like being snowed in and alone with the dogs to make me realize that human contact rates much higher than social networking. The former is a soufflé, the latter a thin broth.

And I haven’t done a lick of poetry writing. I do have an idea for a poem, but I’ve let myself give in to the suspended reality of the snow days.