A Week of Weakness

My recent illness was not exotic, just an annoying head cold that required me to stay close to the tissue box and the herbal tea, and prevented me from leaving home in order not to offend or contaminate others. One of the several annoyances this week was the distraction of sneezing, coughing and dripping. My hands were busy with other things than the pen and notebook. Inactivity left large muscles sore and grumpy. Writing may begin in the brain but it is released into the world by the body, and my body was not cooperating.

While I was achy, frustrated, whiny, I read part of Helen Keller’s autobiography. Blind, deaf, and mute, Keller first learned finger spelling and finally speech. Her senses put her in touch with the world and the world in touch with her. Despite her long journey into literacy, her prose is clear, fresh, deliciously detailed, a lesson on the futility of self-pity and a beautiful reminder of the mind-body connection.

I remember a student who came often to the Writing Lab at LSU-S when I taught there. This woman had a spinal injury that left her immobilized with barely enough dexterity to manage the lever on her power wheelchair. But she wrote! She used a mouth stick to depress the keys on the computer keyboard. Given new voice-activated options, she is, I suspect, even more productive now than when I knew her. I’ve worried at times what I’d do if my right hand failed me and I could not write. I’d remember Kathy and find another way because I need the body to deliver what the mind invents.

Art Where the Heart Lives

Wow! Good week for poetry from where I sit. On Wednesday I attended a monthly writing group at the American Museum of Western Art in Denver. These events are co-sponsored by Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop, and I always begin the session with a nagging troll in my head who says, “You have nothing to say about visual art.” And that troll is mostly wrong. This month we focused on paintings featuring water and I came away with two pretty solid poems. They still need incubation and revision, but they’re satisfying. Thanks to the museum docents who know their art and share their knowledge. I particularly loved seeing a Rockwell Kent and an Edward Hopper.

Last evening I was part of a happening, happy to have judged a poetry contest for the City of Lafayette, Colorado. Each year this snappy little city hosts sculpture, visual art and poetry in a melange that almost defies description. The sculpture are installed as official Art On the Street and citizens are invited to respond interactively via photography, painting, and poetry. The process culminates in the local library with an evening of good food, good conversation and prizes. This year the city had funds to buy two of the sculpture pieces that were part of the competition. These will augment the growing public art collection of this progressive city.

And another thing: that meeting room was set up with 100 chairs and every chair was taken. Everyone stayed for the whole program, poets reading their work, visual artists being recognized and their work lauded on the big screen. It was a fine thing. Especially, given that we had diversity of age, of gender, and of color. Hooray for Lafayette.

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.

Climate Facts & Fiction

How can I convince you to read Climate of Hope by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope? Maybe the credentials of the authors will tempt you. Bloomberg is a famously successful business man and philanthropist and a former mayor of New York City (2002-2013). Pope, a former head of Sierra Club, led a successful Beyond Coal campaign to shut down a number of dirty coal-burning energy producers. Fortunately for readers, both are talented writers who offer a promising approach to surviving ominous changes in Earth’s climate. And a way to thrive in the decades to come if we are smart, aware, and ambitious.

According to Pope and Bloomberg, as their subtitle declares, “cities, businesses and citizens can save the planet.” Given the revitalization of New York City under Bloomberg’s leadership, I  believe this claim. And in our divisive and paralyzing political situation in the U.S, that’s a gift.

Before you start to sweat about reading science, let me tell you that this book is full of well-documented data, but not intimidating. Plain language and engaging style make it a good read. I couldn’t put it down and my notebook is full of info which I will use to challenge my local government to develop a more robust sustainability plan. I believe we need to act locally, despite the overwhelming attention the press gives to Congress.

Why would a novelist/poet read such a book? I refuse to be defined by a narrow concept of writing. I am not an ivory-tower, head-in-the-clouds romantic. I write climate fiction and poetry, and I want to know what’s real. I’m tired of empty-headed pessimism that allows us to throw up our hands, swear and wail, and do nothing to clean up our mess.  What these two authors have done is art in the guise of good advice. Or it’s good advice masked as good writing. Either way, it’s a good, good book.

Collaborative Writing & Ghosts in the Kitchen

Collaborative writing invites ghosts to my party, but these guests barge into the kitchen while I’m still pulling food from the oven. Who are these people? Oh, there’s the editorial board, the editor in chief, the audience waiting to see if the thing tastes as good as it smells. These unseen ghost guests elbow in and shove the writer aside, too many cooks in the kitchen, “more salt, less garlic! More facts, less fiction.”

The collaboration begins when someone chances on a call for submissions and says, “We could write it together.” Now the egos have take a step back and not snarl like a dog with a fresh soup bone, or a toddler who won’t share her cooky, “Mine!” Our self images as writers are also ghosts to be placated.

Like party planners, the writers (two in my case) put on their grown-up hats and get to work. My approach is intuitive, hers intentional. I free write till my notes bloom like sour dough. She revises our slimy outline. I gobble information; she digests it. We decide on deadlines and working process: shared Dropbox files, Word track changes, conference calls when distance precludes face-to-face work.

We begin putting words on the page, draft the proposal that will go to the editor. Enter again the ghosts: who, exactly, is our audience, other than the board that finally will accept–or not–the article? Who’s sniffing around to see if we’re cooking up something tasty, or at least edible? One of us dictates, the other one types: “Whoa, slow down.” “Fix that sentence, it’s boring.” We slice and dice, stir and knead the language into a first draft.

Time now to let the dough rest and rise. This draft is an important 200 words, a taste of what’s to come. We pledge not to poison anyone, to accept the outcome, and hope everyone else enjoys the party as much as we do.

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.

Citizen Writer

Given all the static this past weekend, public and personal, I chose not to post on Saturday as I usually do. But that doesn’t mean my brain hasn’t been churning. It has, and here’s the big idea, not new, but worth repeating: writers have a unique opportunity to engage in the public debate. We can apply the same four words that I preach to other writers: commit, discover, create, connect.

How to be heard in the uproar, to add our voices to the millions? The four words can clarify our beliefs and our ability to contribute to the health of our communities. We begin when we COMMIT ourselves to the causes that raise our hackles and our blood pressure. We DISCOVER our strengths and talents to change or to preserve what matters most. We CREATE a clear statement of our own beliefs, and we CONNECT through our writing with friends, colleagues, and the opposition. We listen, and we “keep calm and carry on.” This worked for England during the horrors of war; it will work for us.

Now that the marchers are safely home–and I thank all of them–we have an even greater responsibility to use our gifts wisely. We are better than name calling and outshouting the haters. We are better than ridicule and unfounded accusations. We are better than ignorance and mindless complicity. We are even better than pink hats. We are not lightning strikes. We pull the plow the whole length of the garden plot. We are parents who know that the job of raising a democracy is a life’s work. This I believe.