Back in November, I saw a notice for a writer’s retreat in Kentucky. Just a weekend, something I could justify by cost and time. I signed up almost impulsively. Like many friends and clients, I was feeling worn down by the year and eager for some kind of respite. As soon as the weekend came and I pointed my car north, I felt relief.
C.D. Wright’s Cooling Time serves as a devotional for me. Every reading uncovers another depth. Her cultivation metaphor speaks to the work of making, tending, unearthing. There is stewardship and also the farmer’s hard eye at what can flourish and what goes back into the compost. Wright is one of the spiritual mentors who helped redeem writing as a work, gritty and alive. The farm girl in me loves those last few sentences, those commands. I hear, “Hop to, woman. Get to work.”
Even with such guidance, I have hesitated to put hand to plow. Or worse, started to work then let the fields lie fallow. Everything else is easier to justify. My work as a helper, my relationships, the laundry, the care and maintenance of a middle-aged body. There is a voice that comes from the same farming mindset when I sit down to write, “Of what use is it?” The lines can’t feed or clothe anyone. They wither in the light of utility.
Still, showing up to the Hindman Settlement School reminded me of so much. Much of it I will hide in my heart because I am still making sense of it. This much I can say; I gathered with rooms of other writers, all women. The women had accents distinctly rural. We all told stories shaped by place and families in specific relationships to the lands called Home.
I had the deep joy of meeting a writer I deeply admire, whose work describes personal experiences and obsessions. She was kind and generous to me. Through her encouragement, I took a further step into the work and applied for the Makery Fellowship. The place and the program felt like a wish I’d forgotten to make. The whole history of the place has themes around land, community, social service, culture, rural people…so many of my favorite topics. I had even taught a beginner class called “The Made Thing” to honor the act of making poems. The whole experience made me remember the concept from growing up Christian – “grace upon grace.”
In a day or so, I’ll start my first online class of a two-year study with The Makery. I have deep gratitude for this opportunity and hope my efforts serve as a form of thanks to all who continue to support me as I go. If you are reading this, you are also part of the preserving saints. Thank you.
Happy New Year
I want to whisper it so I don’t wake you from your nap. It is the afternoon of the first day of 2018 as I write. Where are you now as this flickers on your screen? Is it night? What time is it as you read?
This is the designated beginning of a year, a longish clump of days, but not so long once you’ve had many. Shall we review, shall we plan ahead? I do not know how to write this to you or even who you are. I came of age during the rhythm of paper letters. Once one was sent, you knew things would change before the other read and responded. Letters carried our words bouncing like yells over valleys, the delay part of the message. Let this be my letter, then.
Since childhood, I have been poorly adapted to time, the kind found in clocks and calendars. Even into junior high, I could barely tell time on a watch. Once I could, I could not feel it the way it is told. I would drive to college and sit for hours before class, unable to plan the commute properly. The squares of class-time made no sense to me, or could not be sensed. At least not in the same way as time that was the five verses of “Just As I Am,” tomato season, the counts between thunders (“1 Mississippi”), Christmas break.
As embarrassing as my timeblindness was, I know am glad for the experience. It felt very animal, looking back to experience time through physical experience, through changes in the landscape. My work is adapted to a “fifty-minute hour” in which I sit with one or more humans in a room, hour-to-hour. But even there, closed off from the world, time bends. Some hours are fleet and others leaden with sorrow. Maybe every person carries their relationship with time with them.
Reader, I am rambling. Is that a waste of time? Are you still here/there?
What I mean to say, is how strange that we share whatever this is. A moment separated by time and screens and physical space. I hope you are well and happy. My wish is that you can enjoy whatever moment this inhabits. I’ll leave a little space here. Put yourself in a memory that makes you remember joy.
Happy New Year
The house is ready for Halloween. When shopping for decorations, Handsome Director and I discovered that classic images of witches, ghosts, pumpkins, and haunted houses were hard to find. In their places were entire aisles of fake torture devices and zombies groaning from every corner. With dry ice blowers and fake blood by the gallons (but you should really make your own), the aesthetic was DIY horror film.
Luckily, we found something scarier. Meet 70s Pumpkinhead Scarecrow – he’s garish and wears mismatched prints!
In an effort to make our coffee table more seasonal, it is now covered in books on the witch trials and stacks of monster magazines. I started pulling out poetry.
Feeding the Dead by M. Brett Gaffney was released earlier this year by Porkbelly Press out of Cincinnati. The independent press “seeks work with a strong sense of voice or place, often with a touch of fabulism, folklore, or magic.” Gaffney’s satisfyingly small chap could be hidden in a bag or tucked in a notebook and pulled out when you need to enter a different world for a moment.
In “Hyena Girl” Gaffney limns the particular hell of being a bullied teen girl, using the monstrous to highlight a particular human cruelty. “And so on the girl’s next birthday, she grows thicker hide, / her calendar a mess of cave paintings.” Hunters, demons, and even culture-worn zombies become poignant in Gaffney’s poems. I’m loathe to say more about such a gem, but check out the decadent cover art (photo below) by Mary Chiaramonte.
Feeding the Dead made me reach for more persona poems that speak to the monstrous in the human, specifically Killing Floor and Cruelty by Ai. This poet’s bravery at embodying voices that are murderous and cold is an exercise in dark empathy. She described herself as “half Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, and Comanche” which might inform her adeptness at shape-shifting. Her name means “love” which is the counter impulse to what she recognized as perhaps its converse twin, cruelty. Cruelty, “[t]he thing I want most is hard, / running toward my own teeth / and it bites back.”
Sabrina Orah Mark recommended the poet Lucie Brock-Broido’s A Hunger. It now is one of the books I pull out when the weather turns cool and the days short. There is a haunted air to the book and Brock-Broido’s unique voice. Go to “Elective Mutes” to learn about the Gibbons sisters, born in 1963. They were identical twins who developed a preternatural bond and private language. This alone would be eerie, but the girls’ obsessions led to dangerous rituals and eventually, their imprisonment. The poem is in the voice of June Gibbons but the I/we division slips and fails. Their intimacy was one that could not be breached or broken. The sisters were dangerous no doubt, but perhaps the unforgivable sin was locking out society.
Friends and I check on each other These Days, asking how we are doing in These Times. Everything feels title-capped like a 17th century document. Events have become Nerve-Wracking and Unbearable.
We all caution each other to take care, to have self-care, to care less about things we cannot control. When that does not work, perhaps Daniel Borzutsky’s The Performance of Being Human can.
“What do you make of this darkness that surrounds us?
They chopped up two dozen bodies last night and today I have to pick up my dry cleaning.
In the morning I need to assess student learning outcomes as part of an important administrative initiative to secure the nation’s future by providing degrees of economic value to the alienated, urban youth.
So for now hasta luego compadres and don’t worry too much about the bucket of murmuring shit that is the unitedstatesian night.
What does it say? What does it say? what do you want it to say?”
Performance was published in 2016 and some poems were printed in previous chapbooks dating back to 2014. This bears mentioning for some of the frightening phrases that seem so of The Times that have been since November 2016. The main character(s) are the body and bodies, in uncertain phases of living or dying, or both.
In my copy I circled this line: “Their bodies were traded by country A in exchange for some valuable natural resource needed by country B.” My note, dated 2/2/17: “Yesterday Trump yelled at the Australian PM about ‘a dumb deal’ involving refugee exchange.” And this line: “The immigrant is a racially ambiguous stateless poet from a country whose name for unitedstatesians is hard to pronounce.”
I gave up circling at some point as it would be better to put the book in the floor and draw a circle around it. Point at it and scream the national anthem without letting your teeth touch. Put on olive-colored zombie paint and read the book at the foot of city hall. Recite your social security number until you forget your name and read this, a “bedtime story for the end of the world” to your bedmate. Instead of despair, may it seed some stubbornness, some undying will to move, however slowly. Dig up and out. Rise and make another day.
Even working half-time,
at 76 he stays busy.
He brags about a slew of jobs
through the VA.
“Once you get one…”
he laughs, shakes his head.
Memorials for different wars
he missed through age or luck.
Contractors provide the marble slabs
with their graven lists.
He builds the brick frame,
a hollow, windowless house
He tallies the sites,
in tick infested parks,
in don’t-blink-or-miss-‘em towns.
He recognizes some of the names.
Others draw the same
with which I imagine
he reads my poems.
My father leans in to tell me a secret.
Before he lowers and seals
the cap of each memorial,
he tosses in a scrap of 2 x 4,
with his name and the date
penciled on one side.
He grins at me absorbing
this strange autograph,
this Baptist deacon’s brag.
I cannot tell if he wants
them to be found and read
Written for the Atlanta reading: "Don't Stop Kissing." The images come from the biographies published in the Orlando Sentinel.
--for those killed at Pulse in Orlando
A basketball, a top hat, an envelope of money to send home.
Perfume samples, makeup samples, a housewarming gift.
A pharmacy textbook. A 2-month old.
Business cards. Donor cards. A mambo mix.
A wallet card that says, “I am Catholic.
In case of an emergency, call a priest.”
Photographs of families of lovers of friends.
For baby sister, the ability to walk in heels.
Selfie with a wax figure of Selena Gomez.
#foreveryoung. Low on his boyfriend’s neck,
the red dots of a hickey.
So many eyebrow pencils.
Button-up shirts, all black.
Too many jars of peanut butter.
Keys to the gym. Keys to the new house.
New collars for the Chihuahuas (three).
More dancing in heaven.
Too much quiet. A fist bump.
A bible and a book of poems for a personal renaissance.
Postcards from Niagara Falls.
(“Wish you were here!”)
Invitations to a wedding. Invitation to a christening.
A return ticket to NY on the hotel dresser.
A drawing. A bowtie. Ferrari keychain.
Halloween decorations. Graduation cap and gown.
Brochures for “Drag Stars at Sea.”
Photos from the Bear Den (marked personal).
Name unreleased, name unreleased, name unreleased.
Leftover tomato and cheese dip still in the frig.
Multiple boxes of hair dye, various colors.
An open space, a portal half-a-hundred souls wide.
A rending, a reverse mass birth in the sky.
They left us a charge in this open space,
the size of a dance floor, or a parking lot
where we can kiss, then turn up our eyes
to where we’d see stars, if it weren’t for the neon.
So the seer Balaam had this weird gig from the king of Moab to go curse the Israelites but God was all like, “Oh no you don’t, Israel’s my girlfriend.” Balaam turned them down until they started talking money, then God was like, “Fine, go ahead, man. Go with them…but
only do what I tell you.”
Balaam sincerely regretted not going into culinary school as he’d wanted at that point. The next morning, he packed his cursing stick and saddled up. God was pissed but being all passive-aggressive about it.
Balaam didn’t want to hear when God started talking out of his ass. Not capital H His, Balaam’s, meaning the donkey, who never gets named in the story. Let’s call him Hinnie. Anyway, seems the whole ruckus could have been avoided simply by having a more visible angel.
Angel was going, “Rawr! I’m an angel of the LORD here to smite thee! STOP!”
Meanwhile, poor Hinnie goes left, right, left, right. You know, like the awkward dance you do when two people are trying to go through a doorway. Anyway, no go. Hinnie finally just sat down to avoid the smitey sword-holding angel as Balaam steadily beats the ass’s ass.
Hinnie started talking. Out loud. Like people, “Dude! Why are you beating me like this? Have I ever acted like this before?” Balaam quits with the beating, all shocked but goes, “Hinnie, you’re making me look stupid. Man, if I just had a sword, I’d—“
Drama-queen angel makes an off-broadway entrance with another sword-flashing RAWR and becomes visible to Balaam. They angel tells him, “Oooh, you’re in trouble…I was going to smite the hell out of you!”
Teachable moment for Balaam, etc, etc.
Hinnie retired from Balaam-carrying, started a radio station near the Jordan. Plays his favorite music that falls like mist over the sands. His voice is smooth like old saddle leather as he signs off. “Remember, listen to me, or else.”
I'll try to write some short reactions to the works later. Note: I'm not a critic, but I like to share what I enjoy.
Georgia poet David Bottoms wrote "Under the Vulture Tree" during a time of calm in his life while living in East Cobb County. The house and pond there and the life and around them, informed his work during that time.
....said William Carlos Williams, he of the wheelbarrow and chickens and plums and gulls. Objects and images of them can be incredibly evocative as writing prompts. Neruda wrote a whole collection of odes to common things. My favorites tend to be the ones written to ordinary, overlooked, or even hard to love things.
Photographs are also good sources of inspiration. I don't have a smartphone, more for frugality than any other reason. I do, though, understand the appeal of Instagram and documenting one's world visually, making a diary of the eye.
So here are some prompts around objects. After that, some images from my collection, my Slowgrams.
* * * *
Title and notes/bullet points from a presentation at a conference of mythical creatures.
An important speech. The speaker stubs their toe intensely right before.
Combine an untimely ailment or bodily function with a momentous occasion.
The architectural firm that designs snowflakes has closed.
You wake up in a painting.
Do you have a landscape/place that can be summoned with a sound or scent? Write us there.
Write about your most worn pair of shoes.
At the end of Naomi Shabib Nye’s “The Only Word a Tree Knows” she says “I was born to answer a tree?” What about you? Answer it.
Take the books by your bed or where you read. Pick, at random, a line from each. Use these to jump-start a poem.
A lock of hair. Is it a trophy? A curse? A love spell? Whose?
Job interview, something embarrassing falls out of your purse/bag/pocket.
Your loved one leaves you something to remember them by but it is not at all charming, or sweet, or sentimental.
The possession you'd protect from a house fire that would be hard for others to value.
* * *
So Bowie's left Earth. Briefly put, he was an artist who was a constant part of my growing up. I think I saw him first as an actor. He was playing the Elephant Man and it must have been shown on PBS. I have never been able to find it since, unfortunately. He was riveting. For much of the play he wore a diaper-like thing and twisted himself into Merrick's character. That's it. No makeup or prosthetics, just his contorted almost-naked body and a voice that sounded like it was pushed through a great deal of flesh.
As an oldest child with little access to college radio or record stores, it was probably not until the "Young Americans" album came out that I heard him again. Once we got the satellite dish and MTV, everything changes. I found Bowie and Grace Jones and the Eurythmics and Kate Bush...all the wondrous, freaky sounds and images I craved. There are so many of his songs and videos to love, but I have a special feeling about "Heroes," specifically his performance during Live Aid. The powder blue suit, the GIRL saxophonist, the mass of people screaming in joy!! (I also remember Mama talking about what pretty hair he had.)
I was 16 on that day and earlier in the summer I had traveled to France, at (unappreciated at the time) expense to my family. For almost two weeks, I saw castles and Parisian streets. I stood in front of Van Gogh paintings trying not to cry. I came back home and worked in the same tomato fields as always, dizzy from heat and culture shock. My teenage brain veered between grandiosity and self-loathing, hope and fear. The world was so big and so beautiful and so troubled. Was this the beginning of the world or the end? Bowie always chose the wise path - not choosing an answer, kissing under gunfire, looking death in the eye, living til the end and then....somehow, impossibly, beyond. Matt posted the Lazarus video the day Bowie died with the statement: "today's lesson: Do your thing. Every day. Until you die." I can think of no better tribute.