To Review or Not to Review?

“A book report is an essay discussing the contents of a book, written as part of a class assignment issued to students in schools, particularly in the United States at the elementary school level.” So says Google. I dreaded that forced march through long prose to prove that I had read the whole book. I coughed up the plot, the conflicts and the characters. Stated the theme of the book. Convinced my classmates and the adult with the red pen why I liked or disliked the book. Seemed to me there were only two choices, neither one comfortable. What did I learn from these assignments? I learned to hate book reports, and some kids learned to hate books.

Therein lies my angst over writing book reviews, the grown-up version of a book report, minus the spoilers. Yesterday I chatted with an editor seeking a review for a poetry book he has in hand. I once knew the poet well. What if I don’t like the work? What if I cannot gush and praise and send readers rushing to their bookseller for it? What if I feel merely tepid about it?

Must I warn a vulnerable public to keep away from dull, clumsy books? With so much new poetry, fiction, and memoir to choose from–probably half a million books published annually just in the US–I can do readers a favor if I warn them about the flaccid, florid, horrid books that usurp valuable shelf space in libraries and bookstores. Or I could wax wise and inflate my ego by elevating my taste to the measure of all things literary. Well, my grandma told me that if I couldn’t say something nice to shut up. Granny was sometimes right, so I deflected yesterday’s editor toward a new book of poems that I am excited about, that I can honestly recommend and not sound like a snob, a paid hack, or a crank.

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.

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?