Poems for Poetry Month

I tell other people to write, write, write, even if it’s practice rather than product. And here’s what happens when I tell myself that. Probably these are more dabbles than haiku, but they are of that family. I’m flummoxed with the spacing, so pretend they are single spaced.

Totally modern

woman with a phone, no calls

Smartest phone of all

 

It’s hair dye or else

new brand of agent orange

That hair could kill us

 

Cold bottled water

thirst quenching throw away

Plastic assassin

 

Dying of boredom

killing time again today

Guilty as charged

 

Reader gasping hard

near me in the coffee shop

takes my breath away

Writers Unite

Tomorrow, January 15, 2017, an important event happens at Lighthouse Writers, 1515 Race Street in Denver: Writers Resist: Words of the West. The headline on the flyer reads “On Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday, Writers Across the World Will Gather to Speak, Read, and Re-Claim our Democratic Ideals.” The Lighthouse gathering is free and open to the public, 5:00 – 6:30 PM.

It’s a time and place to remind each other, readers and writers, about civic-minded literature, poetry of witness, eco-fiction, cli-fi (climate fiction), the power of letters, phone calls, tweets, blogs, and posts that “speak truth to power.”

It’s also time to say what we value, not to be cruel or defensive. Be clear, articulate, accurate and awake. Too much of our public discourse is loud and garbled. We need more listening, less lightning. We need citizen sages to add reason to unreasonable times.

and please, Read for Equality

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ Heaven

Sherman Alexie’s First Indian On the Moon

Shane McCrae’s The Animal Too Big to Kill

Louise Erdrich’s Original Fire: Selected and New Poems

What’s the Use of Poetry?

In W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” we find the line “For poetry makes nothing happen …” but we also find this: “Let the healing fountain start,/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.” Assuming that the free man might be man or woman, we need right now a healing fountain. Today poetry will make this much happen: nine people will drive to Longmont, CO, from Denver, Broomfield, Erie, Lafayette, Louisville and Arvada in pursuit of healing; if not healing, at least thought about the uses of poetry. Like a flight of wine, we will taste a variety of what some call political poems, others label poems of witness or protest.

I doubt we will reach consensus over the value of these poems, but we will listen to the considered opinions of others. Over lunch at The Motherlode Cafe, we will talk about poems that react to war, violence, bigotry, and abuse of power. In these strange, divisive times we thirst for language to express our angst, our shared fears and hopes. Here are the poems we will wrestle with: “The Last Election” by John Haines; an excerpt from the prelude to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forche; “Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison” by Nazim Hikmet; “On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” by Linda Pasten; “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats; “Listening to Distant Guns” by Denise Levertov; “Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” by Natalie Diaz; and “Explanations” by Stephen Dunn.

These poems are meant to disturb complacency, to cause reaction in troubling times, and there’s always trouble, so I see no end to the need for poems and poets who struggle to wake us up.


			

Attendez Vous!

Please, if you go to a poetry reading, pay attention to the poets. This is not difficult when the readers are well known and there is no open mic. However, the open mic can challenge your parents’ kindest intentions to teach you manners. I am put off and put out by self-centered attendees who blatantly show no interest in the work of others. They shuffle their own papers, flip through their books, go get latte/wine/beer or use the restroom while someone else is speaking. You know who you are. You want your three to five minutes and will stretch it if you don’t get the hook. I understand that some of the people in the audience are not poets, and I can almost forgive their rudeness, but poets should respect other poets. It’s enough pain that the rest of the world ignores us.

Fate gives you advance notice when you are going to a reading, so you can find twenty minutes in your exciting life to mark selections in your book or paper clip your two longish/three short poems together before you take your seat. Don’t make long introductions. We do not go to hear a lecture, a sermon or a memoir. Don’t take an axe to a gun fight. (My great-great grandfather did that and the result was unpleasant.)

If you must fidget while others speak, get back on your meds, carry worry beads, or doodle silently in a small notebook. Look interested even if you ache with disdain for the rest of the readers. Pretend that the one at the mic is Will Shakespeare back from the dead to entertain you. Fake it till it’s your turn, and for Pete’s sake don’t walk out before the readings end, unless A. Hitler strides to the mic and shouts racial or ethnic slurs. Even then you might keep your butt in the chair and hear something you’ve never heard before–a voice not your own.

 

Makeup for TV

Writing is not, I repeat not, a solitary process. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I hang out with a lot of other writers, many of them I meet over coffee or in critiques or for free writing. I love these personal and up close meetings, especially in our high-tech world were too often we are avatars, mere head shots or invisible hands on  invisible keyboards. Yesterday I added another form of contact–television.

Stacy McKenzie is the host for a program called Off the Page, tag line, “where we get the story behind the story.” I don’t watch much television and have never been on TV, so I was curious and a little apprehensive. Television itself has prepared me for a chaotic crew of technicians and a round of retakes to make it perfect. What happened was much more comfortable.

In preparation, Stacy sent me a list of likely interview questions, so I would not be challenged by the unexpected. I talked with a friend who has had a lot of theater experience and Judy advised me to wear makeup because of the bright lights used in filming. What? Makeup? My cosmetics comprise a dried-up tube of mascara and a tinted Berts Bees lip gloss. Sigh, so I took her advice and called a local salon. Oh, excitement! “TV? Yes, we have an esthetician/makeup artist. We can fit you in at 1:15.” I didn’t have to be at the library where Stacy does the filming until 4:30, so I figured I had time to come home and wash my face if I couldn’t live with the results. But Tiffany at Centre Salon in Westminster listened to me and went with “a natural palette.” It felt odd, but I did not look like a clown. In the mirror I saw a face resembling my own, but just a little unfamiliar.

The film crew consisted of two men, both casual, friendly and undemanding. Stacy and I were miked with unobtrusive wires and all I had to do was smile, talk, and keep my tote bag out of sight. We talked about writing, about writing communities, about my books, and Stacy asked me to read a bit of poetry. Well, I read poems almost as often as I eat. The only retakes were for Stacy. She does so many of these interviews that she works at keeping the routine bits, her intros and outros and questions, fresh. So, now I can add TV experience to my list of things I never imagined doing.

The interview will be visible in September on the The Broomfield Channel-You Tube, the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Library website and Broomfield Cable Channel 8. Stay tuned and I’ll post the link. Now, excuse me. I want to go buy a new tube of mascara. Just in case, you know?

I Believe

Recently I finished participating in a memoir group. For each of five weeks we wrote on an assigned topic such as family, work, etc. The final assignment was to write about values, spirituality, or religion. I won’t bore you with my internal meanderings on this topic, but–you knew this was coming–that assignment led me to think about my beliefs as a writer. So, here’s what I think. Feel free to disagree.

I believe in morning pages 365 days a year as finger exercises, messy first drafts and free writing. I believe in the benefits of a dedicated process that encourages regular writing and in fresh, energetic language, honest sentences and sensory images. I believe in reading, although I don’t believe everything I read. I believe in ink on paper and in the wonder of my Mac Mini, in conversation among writers, face to face, in revision and honest, gentle critique, in ebooks and printed pages and independent publishing.

I believe that poets are writers, no matter what the title of that famous magazine says. I believe that writing makes me happy, neatness counts, gratitude should show, praying might work when I’m stuck but that persistence works better. I believe that I’m sensitive to criticism, that writers need a sense of humor and that my poems often need more energy. I believe I’ve said enough on this subject–for now. Oh, one more, I believe in sobriety. Your turn.

Negative Space

One of the poets in our local critique group recently brought a poem that dealt with the space that art tries to occupy. It’s a hard concept to grasp, but we talked for quite a while about the possibility, and I settled on the idea of negative space in visual art. Interestingly, a novel that I happened to be reading, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, uses that very concept in a significant way. An artist dies and his beloved niece is left to wrestle with her grief and his talent, which shows, partly, in negative space revealed in her portrait as the head of a wolf. She is fascinated by wolves, and this serendipitous discovery of the vision in his work stays with her as a reminder of him and the complexity of love and grief.

As a poet, I think about what to leave out of a poem after I’ve made a few rough drafts. I’ve learned to be ruthless in cutting out the parts that don’t earn their place. But now I’m thinking that this idea of not filling space is one of the very hallmarks of contemporary American poetry. We don’t fill all the available space. Not in a sentence, not in an image. And when a poem does feel over full we weed, prune, shave–somehow cut the excess. We don’t often fill the received forms that have come down to us like pouring water into someone else’s cup. So I think my friend Julie is onto a huge concept and turning it into a poem she demonstrated it. She managed to leave white space in the center of the poem, an illustration of the unfilled space. And that space is where the reader joins us. Voila!