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.

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.


			

Time’s UP!

There’s a song from the 1950s, “Little Things Mean a Lot.” I agree. Little words mean a lot. Comedian George Carlin (may he rest in peace) once said that rather than get on the plane, he would prefer to get in the plane. Think about it.  So the little word for today is up. Campaigning recently, President Obama told a rowdy crowd, “Hold up! Hold up! Listen Up!” Like a barnacle this little preposition gloms onto other words and slides into writing and conversation almost invisibly. Almost ubiquitously. Consider this list: wake up, get up, rise up, screw up, f*** up, the acronym SNAFU, throw up, put up or shut up, what’s up? Rain lets up, protestors speak up, cowards give up. Business picks up at this holiday time of year. Some of us put up the Christmas tree. We light up that tree. We stand up for our beliefs. Or we throw up our hands. Police order “hands up.” They’re up to something, but I’m not up for it.

 It’s not as if we don’t have other choices to relay these ideas and images. We can stand, speak, make mistakes, vomit, contribute, be silent. So why do we put up with up? Why tolerate its intrusions? These word combos are conversational. They keep us from sounding pretentious, stuck up. My intent then is not to banish up, discard all of these little suckers that keep appearing, popping up, in my writing or conversation. I want, instead, to be aware, to awake to the usage rather than giving in to automatic phrasing. I want to clean up my verbal mess.

 READ FOR EQUALITY

Colon Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

Black Books Galore! AALBC.com’s November 2016 eNewsletter

Cowardly Reader

I admit it, I sometimes start books but set them aside before I finish. Right now LaRose, by Louise Erdrich, has been on my coffee table far too many days. Erdrich is a talented novelist and her work is important, illuminating as she does the lives of Native Americans when they fray from contact with the white establishment. I feel guilty letting this book go stale. I preach “Read for Equality,” yet I have not finished this important novel by a Native American writer of great talent. On the other hand, I listened compulsively to an audio version of Louise Penny’s newest Inspector Gamache mystery, A Great Reckoning. Penny too is talented and I took in every word.

My different responses to these books lies in my attachment to the characters. I become immersed in their lives. I care about them. And when their lives get too hard to bear, I back off. In LaRose awful things happen to the characters and I feel their suffering, abhor the cruelty and injustice, fear for their survival. My filter fails.

Both writers are capable of murder. Murder is, of course, Penny’s stock in trade, but she writes a series, and main characters in series survive to appear in the next book.  They may be wounded, troubled, or abused, but they live on in my imagination, and I know that as I open the next book. I mean, Ann Cleeves would no more kill off detectives Jimmy Perez and Vera Stanhope than she would poison a neighbor’s barking dog. I doubt that Penny will off Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The reader is safe if the character is safe.

Erdrich has no such obligation to her characters. Her obligation is to truth. She does not write gratuitous gore, but given that truth some scenes are powerfully graphic, and I know that not all of these people will survive. I close the book, slip it back into the library bag, make a silent apology,, and slink off like a frightened child.

My Check-list Life

I love lists, the satisfaction of the little check mark when I’ve finally finished a project or task. I make grocery lists, project lists, to-do lists, books to read lists. A list is finite in an infinite world. Without these little reassurances, I might run screaming into the street and throw myself in front of a truck. No, that’s not true. But I do feel anxious when I don’t know what to do next.

This list-mania comes from all the years I spent as a mental health nurse. Nurses cannot forget things. They multi-task almost constantly and details matter. I used reporters’ notebooks, those long, thin spiral pads that fit into my scrubs pocket. I dated every page and started a new page each shift. I never tore out a page because at times when I wanted to review what I’d done previously. Of course, patient names were abbreviated or coded. And the whole thing went into the shredder when I was finally done with that list of lists.

My tasks and projects as a writer are not life-saving or enhancing. Well, maybe the latter. I like to think that all the little steps in creating and publishing a poem or story add up to entertainment, education or inspiration. Of course, I’ll never know. A reader, unlike a hospital patient, gets no discharge summary, no return appointment, no swelling chart in the records department. I go blind into this work and trust the list-less world to benefit from my efforts. The finite becomes almost infinite and beyond my control. Write it and let it go. Cross it off the list.

Fiction Comes to Life

Characters live long if they catch the devoted attention of readers. Characters act and react and please and disappoint. “Don’t open that cellar door!” But the character opens the door and out leaps. . . a lost child. Characters take risks, and writers take risks when they breathe truth and texture to a character. When they avoid the cliche, the stereotype.

I will long remember Ivoe Williams, the lead character in Jam on the Vine, a debut novel by LaShonda Katrice Barnett. I’ve written before about my need to understand black lives because I grew up mostly in small towns in Maine where black people were not so much invisible as fictitious. There was a rumor that a black family had once lived on Durgintown Road in Cornish, but I never saw a black face until, oh, I guess when I started nursing school in Providence, RI. I read only about white characters, like Alex in The Black Stallion. That was as black as my early reading got. Then I went to grad school in Georgia. Finally, black faces, but not in my subdivision. Division–oh, the truth in that word.

So here I am, wondering what to do to educate myself, to find and uproot my hidden biases. Ivoe helps. She is a young black woman with who starts her own newspaper and puts herself on the front lines of the race wars in America in the early part of the 20th century. She’s braver than I am. And I care about her because Barnett shows me the close up I need to care about Ivoe, her parents (her mother is Muslim), her siblings, and her lover, a woman named Ona. I’m often scared for Ivoe. There are doors I wish she would not open. But she does. One of those doors is in my head.

Barnett has taught history and literature at prestigious colleges, so her cred is real when she writes about riots, lynchings, arson and other evils that Ivoe confronts. I will read more books like Jam as part of my education in American culture. Confrontation is emotional; education is essential.

READ FOR EQUALITY

Commited?

For the past hour I have committed myself to solitaire instead of posting this blog. Why? Because my dog is sick, because the news of yet more shootings sickens me, because . . . because . . . because. Because the world is too much with me today, not getting and spending as Wordsworth said, but because there is no time out for peace. Life has historically been a violent enterprise. Plagues, war, abuse–a hellish place this world. But it’s the only one we’ve got. We will not colonize a new planet, although we seem bent on destroying this one.

How to shake this ennui, despair, meanness? Yes, I feel mean. I want politics to go jump off a cliff–oh, wait, that’s already happened. I want to regain my usual calm and get on with my day. The weather is mild right now. I have a poetry group on the agenda. The dog is not going to die today. And I am committed to my life as a writer, a truth teller, a scribe. Today the truth is that I’m scared. Scared for our country. The violence, racism and hate have percolated into my cells and I want to play turtle, draw back into mindless digital games until the despair blows over. But here’s the thing: my distress won’t pass unless I face it and commit to doing what I can to be a better citizen. I have to vote. I have to work at equality among the people I know and respect. I have to give the dog his medicine and pay the vet bills. I have to go take a shower and be glad for that simple opportunity. Commitment starts now, again, with gratitude for hot water on demand, for eggs in the frying pan, and for the safety of home.