Ekphrastic Writing

Yesterday Lighthouse Writers Workshop in collaboration with Denver Art Museum sponsored an event featuring ekphrastic writing, writing in response to visual art. Our host writer for the day was MolinaSpeaks, a Denver poet and artist. Molina led us to the 4th floor of the museum where a we visited Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place,  installations by 13 Latino artists exploring “contemporary life in the American West.” Our process was to first visit each of the installations and then choose one that inspired close observation, interaction, mystery, whatever might inform our own writing.

My choice was a mixed media grouping by artist Ramiro Gomez. His bronze sculpture of a woman stands outside the museum, near the entrance, and three mixed media pieces inside portray the same woman, Lupita, who cleans the museum. Gomez says in his bio that manual work is an important element of his art. He uses cardboard, black trash bags, a cleaning rag, a spray bottle in his constructions, textures and surfaces that Lupita handles as she cleans.

The static art brings her not to life but into our lives. At breakfast yesterday I did not know her. With my morning coffee today, I know of her. Here’s the poem that developed as I sat with Gomez’s art:

LUPITA

Cardboard and black plastic,

cleaning rag and spray bottle–

everything means something:

the blood-red paint, a woman

cut out of the background,

leaving a white silhouette

of a brown woman. Warned

to “stay behind the line”

meant to protect the art,

I cannot touch her, Lupita

of Integrated Cleaning Service

though she touches me.

Why I Own Books

I’ve moved dozens of times and in those moves I tried to free myself of the weight of books. It has yet to work. The books sneak back into my home like stray cats. And this week I had a lesson in the joy of owning them–the books, not the cats.

Reading a library book, I saw what looked like an unintelligible couple of lines quoted from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. These poems are dense and ask a lot of a reader, and despite having read them numerous times, I didn’t quite trust myself to say, oh, yes, typos in an expensive tome of criticism. Didn’t dare say “Gotcha” to an editor from Harper Collins. Hurried two or three steps to the Es in my collection of poetry, and felt momentary panic–where was Eliot? Aha, the coy, slender volume was hiding between Stephen Dunn and Sharif Elmusa.

But my memory was right, two words were missing initial letters in the quoted passage. My copy of the poems saved me from booting up the Mac Mini and waiting for the wifi to open, and then the bother of typing in the search box, and watching the screen light its way into the labyrinth of Eliot’s work to find those wounded words snapped off like glass twigs.

Best of all, I had that little book in my hands, the feel of its sleek cover, the little head shot of T.S.E, a facsimile of his signature, the praise from John Crowe Ransom on the back cover, and inside the familiar dots of red ink I often use to mark memorable lines, my very own Four Quartets. And I read it again straight through, brushed my teeth, and went to bed happy and vindicated.

For the Love of Libraries

At the Corky Gonzales Branch of the Denver Public Library, I just added a fifth to my collection of library cards. This place is welcoming, convenient, big and air conditioned. Another no-sweat afternoon, despite the Colorado heat. I can see the mountains, lush green trees and a blue and white sky. Sigh, all this and a new building full of green energy and good books.

I’ve loved libraries since I was seven and Grammy Cole took me to the tiny Harmony RI library, one room at the back of the fire station. Now Harmony has a proper library in what was once the elementary school. In my tiny Maine high school, our library doubled as the principal’s office. I was sent there often, not because I misbehaved, but because I was the only college-bound senior and had to listen to recordings of Chaucer that would have driven my classmates to despair. For a time in college I had a job shelving books in the University of Maine Portland library. One summer my friend Marcia and I did library tours. We visited at least half a dozen, noting the amenities and the layout.

My local library, the Mamie Doud Eisenhower in Broomfield CO, has outgrown its space and I long for the day when we can expand. Meanwhile, I use any available library as a refuge from the heat and the hustle. Thursday at College Hill Library in Westminster CO, I plunked down in front of a west facing window, my back to the other patrons, just to sit and admire a view of the Rockies, and to browse through a Simone De Beauvoir book from the sale table, The Woman Destroyed, a great buy at 50 cents. Then I headed to the stacks and there! Facing me, a book on my wish list, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk–a birthday gift in July although I was born in December.

Given the joy of libraries, I should sing hosanna to Benjamin Franklin, who started the first such thing the colonies. He established in 1731 The Library Company of Philadelphia, originally a subscription library in which he and friends pooled their books and shared the purchase of new reads. He hired our first librarian, Louis Timothy, who was paid to work a few hours twice a week. We had a library before we had a country. I hope Ben is looking down from his cloud and marveling at what’s ensued. Thanks, Ben, many thanks.

Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Invitation to a Refugee

The US is big, diverse, argumentative, and not always united, not always kind. So far we have things to be grateful for: no outbreak of cholera, mostly clean food and safe water, but I cannot promise you a living wage, a free education, or adequate health care. Maternal and infant deaths are too common. Tax rates are confusing and rarely fair. Our government is weak and confused. We kill each other. Citizens kill cops, cops kill citizens.  But come anyway if you are brave and desperate. Our history lies, is bloody and greedy. Come anyway. Maybe you will teach us tolerance and compassion. Many of us spring from immigrants and some of us keep our origins in mind when there’s a knock on the nation’s door.

***

My name is Karen. We are yet strangers, even to ourselves, but I’m glad you’re here. Please, sit. Do you drink coffee? We drink a lot of coffee. Cream? Tell me about your trip. Tell me your story.

Half Day at the DAM

Without intending to, yesterday I took the day off. Call it a personal day, a mental health day, or an unintended consequence, it doesn’t change the fact that I planned to write this week’s blog entry at the Denver Art Museum. I took my iPad and notebook, sure that some ekphrastic writing would magically appear and you, Dear Reader, would be entertained by my sharing. Didn’t happen. Technology failed me. The guest wifi at the museum was taking the day off too.

That glitch forced me to give up on product and just be there. Be one of the early birds rocking in a long line of huge lounge chairs in the plaza, being one of the visitors waiting for the doors to open, talking to tourists from Kansas and comparing museum notes. Feeling awed by a 30-ft tall stack of blankets in the American Indian section. And lunch at a window table in Palettes, watching people ride bikes, push strollers, stroll along holding hands on a sunny day.

I watched people of all sizes, shapes and skin tones, bulky, skinny, bared arms and legs, long dresses and short hair. We human’s are so beautiful, no matter what our costume. The young man with dreads wearing a Planned Parenthood tee shirt, he was beautiful. So was the woman discreetly breast feeding her infant in the museum. And the dad teaching his two middle-school sons to appreciate fine pottery.

Here’s the takeaway: a day spent looking is as good as a day spent writing. I’m the boss of me and I approve that day off. I’ll do it again.

Music, Magic and the Muse

It’s no news to anyone who follows me that I am a fan of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, especially the Friday 500 program. We never know till close to the event what our guide Dan Manzanares has planned. Yesterday he served up magic. What else can I call the mix of award-winning author Claudia Rankine’s work, the a capella group In Harmony’s Way–live, in the room with us–and a gaggle of writers?

Here’s the process: Dan read selections from Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, and immediately after each reading the singers responded with spontaneous harmonies and rhythms. Two of the singers had studied with Bobby McFerrin, so that gives you a sense of what we heard. The music sounded to me a blend of scat and gospel. Amazing sounds made of pure air, percussion of stomping and clapping. Being in the same space with live music is itself magic: an inspiration of air, and then the risk of expiration shaped and shared.

While the singers worked their magic, writers took notes (though not like the notes on a music score) and then had 20 minutes to create something out of the experience. So we had an absent author, live music, and spontaneous writing, all in the same hour. Harmony in an age of disharmony! Here’s what I made:

ATLANTIC SONG: Sea waves stretch to touch the tideline, swish in, buzz, retreat. Crest, break, withdraw, low vowels and keen of gulls, syllables sway and skip a capella to the shore.

Remember to read for equality

Jericho Brown, The New Testament (poems)