Please, Read for Equality

I’ve said it before but now more than ever, this is important. We all need to read books written by people who don’t look like us. Here are three that I’m reading this week and each one is valuable, readable and satisfying.

Alexie, Sherman. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a Memoir.  Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Lene Indian, writes with his usual wit and depth about his childhood through the lens of his complex relationship with his mother.

Qin Xiaoyu, ed. Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry, translated by Eleanor Goodman. Jared Smith, Director at The New York Quarterly Foundation, writes in his back-cover blurb: “These poems are a wake-up call for poets, scholars, and humanitarians everywhere.” He’s right.

Smith, Tracy K. Duende, Poems. Smith’s book won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is our current U.S. Poet Laureate.

Let your library and bookstore know that you value books that enlarge your world, and I welcome your additions to this list. If you send recommendations via the comment option here, I’ll add your ideas next week. If you add your voice to mine, we will have an impact on the racial tensions in the USA and the world.

Read for equality.

Imperfect Gifts

One of my favorite books is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. It’s about passing along the gifts of creativity–writing, visual art, music, etc. It came up again this past week with a group of writers. But what if the gifts I give are less than perfect, not even close? After all, would I give someone a bald tire, a torn shirt, half a jar of peanut butter? I wouldn’t give stale bread to a starving child.

And what constitutes a real gift, as opposed to a gift to my own ego? “Look at the wonderful poem/book/photograph I’ve made.” Gifts are meant to signal generosity, not grandiosity. I remember a segment of the TV show Friends, in which Phoebe tried to give a gift that did not in any way serve her. She found that it was impossible, because she felt good about giving, thus the gift was never pure.

Gifts from writers are never pure either. The writing is never perfect and the writer’s pleasure in sharing affects the giving. But we still must move the work on. It’s a bit like raising a child and sending that kid out in the hope that he or she will be a friend to someone, a loving spouse, a hard worker. Poems, essays, and stories are our offspring, and sending them out is an act of faith, however flickering that faith may be. We cannot give without receiving, and maybe that’s the best gift of all.

Word for the Day Is Wall

The Great Wall of China, built with slave power about the third century BC was ineffective against invaders. Now it’s a tourist site. The Biblical Old Testament tells us about the Battle of Jericho: “And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.” Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 BC to protect the northern boundary of Roman Britain. It did not keep out the enemy. In 1961 East Germany built a wall of wire and concrete. It came down in 1989. My dictionary defines a wall as “a rampart built for defensive purposes,” meant to enclose, to divide, to confine, to block off.

Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall” begins, “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall …” I’m with him. But of course, I live within walls, feel safe and sheltered by the sturdy walls of my home. But these walls are pierced with doors and windows that can provide access, welcome, or escape, as needed. Defensive walls, historically, have not guaranteed safety from intruders. They are costly failures. They are not permeable and can imprison those on the inside. Like Frost, something in me doesn’t like such a wall.

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.

Only Myself to Blame

It’s been a good week: five poems accepted for publication and acknowledged, a time-consuming project cancelled and a new poem written. Of course, I did my daily morning pages and insisted on a focus. I updated my submissions list and noted the next round of subs. But I did not tackle the long projects on my to-do list. It’s not that I don’t want to write the family history that’s outlined and started. And I would happily write a long essay about the need for writers to be vigilant in following the news, no matter how unsavory it is. I should sort and revise the short-fiction manuscript lurking in a fat notebook. But big projects don’t reach the finish line quickly. And that’s where I give up, curl up with the cat and a jigsaw puzzle, defeated by my own expectations: that I need to finish everything efficiently, right now.

Writing doesn’t work that way. It needs to incubate, grow in the dark, gestate. Pick a metaphor. I forget this regularly because our consumerist society demands efficiency and products with a price tag. What I need is to turn off all the media, stack up a dozen good books and withdraw from society for a while. And I don’t mean one afternoon. I mean a deep retreat from the angst and pace of public life. An article in the new Poets & Writers advocates a writing retreat.

Ah, yes, a writing retreat shimmers on the calendar, so bright that I squint at May 23rd, when I will fly back east for three weeks. I’ll house/dog/cat sit and stuff the TV remote under a couch cushion, post my absence from social media, and stop the clocks. I’ll write whatever comes, play with the dogs, and sit by the ocean. From here that feels right and easy. The catch, of course, is I’ll still have my own attitudes to deal with, my need to reassure myself that I am, in fact, a writer, no matter what shows up on the page.

 READ FOR EQUALITY

FOR A LIST OF NEW BOOKS BY PEOPLE OF COLOR: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+TroyJohnson

DC: Wetlands or Landfill?

Washington DC is not a swamp. A swamp is a vital wetland, home to biodiversity. No, DC is a landfill of braggadocio, selfishness, lies and greed. An executive gag order has silenced the EPA, built a wall between citizens and information about the ground we walk on, the air we cannot help but breathe and the water we must drink or die. I am outraged.

My solace comes, when it comes at all, from the stories, poems and memoirs of writers who practice the literature of witness, whose work grows out of their experience. It may be poetry, fiction, or memoir, and while it may not be fact, it is not fake. Not propaganda or alternative truth.

I am thankful for the Rolodex of writers that flips through my brain at 3:00 am when I’m wide-eyed in the gloom and the faint glow of the digital clock: Nujood Ali, Brian Turner, Kurt Vonnegut, Sojourner Truth, Richard Wright and Paul Theroux, Sherman Alexie, Elie Wiesel, Anna Akhmatova, Anne Frank, Carolyn Forche, Marge Piercy, Terry Tempest Williams, Louise Erdritch, Vandana Shiva, Tim Hall, Ernesto Cardenal and Robinson Jeffers. These are only some of the brave, outspoken “unacknowledged legislators” of my world.

If I am what I read, then I am a citizen of a truer world than that of the solid sewage rolling down Capitol Hill. This witness work is, as Ezra Pound requested, “news that stays new,” heartening me when I want to hide under the bed with the cat for the next four years. But here I am, doing what writers do, speaking my truth as well as I can, declaring myself a member of the scribbler tribe and their cousins, sisters, brothers and forbears.