There’s always a book

Many thanks to Lesley Wheeler for giving my chapbook Strange Ladies a mention on her blog! Given the circumstances of the past month or so, I have not been on the ball about promoting the publication. Word of mouth and social media platforms have helped the sales, but I have been remiss about scheduling readings, book signings, etc. These days, even well-known mid-list authors often have to be self-reliant about promoting their books. Agents for poetry are few and costly, so while getting the book into the readers’ hands may more easily happen thanks to online bookstores, finding an audience of interested readers takes effort and imagination on the part of the poet. Effort and imagination that, at present, I lack.

But–as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us in Slaughterhouse 5–so it goes. (106 times.) At the close of this quick post, I’ll try to remind myself to add the link to Strange Ladies.

As life has afforded few spare moments of uncluttered mind-time in which to write, I’m back to scribbling notes, phrases, and ideas on random pieces of paper and in my journal. This fallback method works well for me, an old-school pen & paper poet. Quite a few colleagues-in-poetry use various smart phones and electronic devices to write notes-to-self and even to draft poems, but when I resort to that–on the rare occasion that I have my cell phone but not a writing implement or bit of paper–I forget about my ideas, which are filed somewhere “in there” (on Samsung Notes’ app). It’s a good thing I am not considered a significant author whose work is worthy of preserving, because my poet-life drafts and mementos would be challenging to archive.

For the moment, my writing has a work-centered locus: curriculum, to-do lists, meeting schedules and agendas, orientation and presentation scripts, group emails to announce this or that Important Thing that likely 80% of the recipients will ignore. I get home, eat dinner, pick beans, tomatoes, zucchini, and zinnias. And I read. The one thing I always seem to have time for!

While I didn’t purposely take up the Sealey Challenge, I have continued reading poetry books more than once weekly, mixed in with creative non-fiction of various sorts, histories, and a novel or two (recently re-read Our Mutual Friend, by Dickens, to cheer myself up). Here’s a list of the recent poetry books I’ve perused: Linda Hogan’s A History of Kindness, Maggie Smith’s Goldenrod, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Would-Land, and Sumita Omaya’s The Life and Zen Haiku Poetry of Santoka Taneda, tr. William Scott Wilson.

The least exciting was Smith’s book–I liked her previous collections Good Bones and The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison better (this is not to say Goldenrod was “bad.”) The most exciting was Alexander Essbaum’s book, which I devoured and have already read a second time. I find Hogan’s work meditative and calming, even when she writes of trauma and disturbance; it’s her style, I believe, that creates that mood in me. And I knew very little about Taneda or his standing in literary Japan, so that’s been interesting.

~

~ And, as promised, there’s always a book! Here’s my latest:

available here: https://moonstone-arts-center.square.site/product/michael-ann-e-strange-ladies/370

Adaptable

The squirrels have begun an assault on my vegetable garden, drawn by a stunning and unplanned stand of sunflowers starting to go to seed. I can’t say I blame them, and I don’t mind that they eat the sunflowers–the birds can grab plenty. It’s the intelligence of squirrels that rallies the assault: they find a food source, tell their friends, and then explore further into the garden. That’s where I get annoyed with them. In this dry, hot weather they seek out the juicy tomato fruits and, while there, sample everything else they can find.

But their appearance is due to human circumstance and intervention. The development of a suburban cul de sac next door instead of the cornfield of past years, for example, and the pressure that has led to fewer predators in our little environment. More deer in smaller acreage, and deer eat oak saplings, so we have fewer oak trees maturing along the woodlot. With less mast available, why not turn to sunflower seeds, tomatoes, pears, even squash? Squirrels will take advantage of those changes. Very adaptable creatures.

Adaptability is admirable, and required if beings are to stay alive, let alone evolve. When I visit my beloved, aphasic, widowed mother, I marvel that she can nevertheless, under enormous changes, navigate the world. Granted–she has assistance. But not all human beings with assistance manage to maintain a benign and compassionate sense of self as their bodies fall apart with age.

Which brings me to Lost and Found, a Memoir, by Kathryn Schulz. My book group read this one recently, and I started reading it without doing any research about the book or the author–too busy with other things, and sometimes I like to be surprised by a text. By page 60, I was teary-eyed, because the story Schulz tells resonates with me. This month marks the second anniversary of my dad’s death, and the book begins with the death of Schulz’s beloved, curious, intellectual, chatty father.

This is the “Lost” of Lost and Found. Schulz writes beautifully, and writes beautifully of how complex and fraught the impending death of a loved one can be–the decisions, the fears, memories, even the forms that must be filled out and submitted so that the insurance and medical bills get properly taken care of. Meanwhile, we grieve and remember and numbly try to keep on in our suddenly bereaved “normal lives.” Schulz describes the environment of grief accurately and poignantly.

The “Found” section of the book describes love: new love, romantic love, the thumping of the heart and surprise at finding a person who’s the person. Here, Schulz’s experience differs considerably from mine, yet her writing took me back to days of feeling the heady excitement of getting to know someone deeply, intimately. The memoir, though it begins in sorrow, ends with the vulnerable opening into the shared territory of long-term relationships, whether those are among families, friends, or spouses.

As wretched as the world often is, we–and the rodents, insects, plants, etc.–find ways to adapt for far longer than seems likely. In the face of war and climate catastrophe and the loss of what we love, some of us manage to change and stay resilient, teaching new skills to those who come after us. We do so through art, literature, dance, music, community, love. It isn’t easy and it isn’t certain. But it’s all we’ve got.

Why so strange?

This collection did not begin as a collection. If anything, it originated in the poems that stuck out as not belonging anywhere, poems not quite abandoned (in fact, most of them had been published in journals over the decades) but not fitting in with my other work. Which is in itself an odd statement to make, since my “style” has ever been inconsistent; I try many styles and forms when composing poems: short, long, free verse, rhyming, metrical, prose poems, telegraphic, chatty, narrative, lyric, abstract, broken, experimental, et cetera. So what do I mean when I say these poems did not fit?

From the time I began writing poetry “seriously” (with authorial and craft intent), I developed themes, tropes, and images that I have never stopped employing; but sometimes one topic or lyric current would bob to the surface and occupy my thought-flow for days, weeks, or months on end. When that occurs, I may get a collection out of it. Sometimes several collections create a sort of arc or, in some cases, a thread of resonance that results in a longer collection. Or maybe there are stylistic choices that recur, and those poems seem connected.

Then there are those impulses that just show up for one poem and vanish for a long while. Persona poems. Feminist poems. Political poems. Rants. Love poems. Dreamy poems. Surreal pieces. And so on.

For Strange Ladies, I realized that during the past 45 years I’ve written enough oddly interesting straggler poems about/in the voices of/relating to female “characters” of a mythopoetic variety that they might form a coven. Or at very least, a neighborhood. The strangeness of these women comes from their position as outsiders, exiles, shamans, rebels, goddesses, myths, heroines. A chapbook manuscript materialized, and what surprises me most about this collection is that the poems I ended up choosing date all the way back to some of the first poems I ever got into print. At that time (circa 1981), indie-lit mags were photocopied, stapled affairs often using collages of copyright-free art for graphics. My nostalgia about that era led me to go for a retro look on the cover. And yes, I wrote one of these poems in 1979 while living in New York City…but others are as recent as 2019. A span of 40 years, and yet they seem to belong together in their differences.

Here’s what one of Moonstone Press’ anonymous poetry editorial committee members had to say:

“This chapbook is like a chorus of distinct personae over time and myth and family–Hagar, Icarus’s sister, the mother, the grandmother, the daughter, each poem a character sketch, engaging, memorable. I loved lines like: ‘Women shoulder everything’ and ‘gliding brought more joy/ than soaring.’ The poem ‘Witch’ is so tight and mysterious, like a dream. In ‘Heron Heroine,’ I loved this: ‘and she who balances stands often on one leg, /as what’s precarious for others grounds her, toes clawed deep/in mud.’ Themes such as sailing, water, bones are carried through in a nice variety of forms that never got boring or repetitive. The diction is so interesting, nice use of natural terms and details, words like ‘bittern,’ ’tilth’ and ‘binnacle.’ I think my favorite might be ‘I am a Cloud,’ with its powerful ending, ‘Attached to nothing, I dance the wind.’ I vote yes, enthusiastically.”

~

I hope other readers will find this little collection of poems as rewarding, and I’m thrilled to have it out in the world. Link to purchase: https://moonstone-arts-center.square.site/product/michael-ann-e-strange-ladies/370

The Birdcatcher*

So many “heat bubbles” world-wide this summer. We happen to be in one of them–high temperatures, even at night, and barely any rain in the past three weeks. No rain in the forecast for days ahead. Drought. Temperatures in the 90s. It’s not even as humid here as it usually is in summer. But humid enough. I dislike air conditioning as a rule, but boy am I grateful for it and privileged to have it.

The sunflowers in my garden grew taller than average this year yet are now drooping from high temperatures and lack of water. Young deer show up outside of their usual territories while trying to find forage that isn’t crispy. They (and the birds) gobbled up the wild berries so quickly that I managed to pick only a pint or so of wineberries. The drought hit after blackberry season, though, so we did get a nice harvest of those.

Curled petals of a very dry sunflower.

It’s not just the deer behaving differently because of the weather. I notice that squirrels and some birds have altered their usual patterns as well. This evening, I got a panicked call from a friend who lives in a nearby city–a bird had found its way into her son’s attic room through a poorly-installed window air conditioner, and all the windows up there were stuck shut due to the humidity. The poor bird was fluttering crazily, and she had no idea how to free it. I’m guessing the bird (it appeared to be a juvenile catbird) was seeking shade and shelter, and saw the gap between the wall and the unit as a safe space as the sun began to go down.

I have not had a lot of experience rescuing caught birds, but this is the second time in a week I was summoned to assist a frightened avian. On Monday, one of our summer library assistants asked for help with a fledgling robin that was unable to clear the brick wall of our entry ramp in order to join its parents, who were chirping from a nearby shrub. That task was easier than rescuing an attic-trapped bird, but I succeeded in both cases.

I shall rename myself Papagena!

Meanwhile, we have finally taken steps to remove house sparrow nests from our damaged cedar siding, an eviction over which we have no regrets. The layers of nesting material in former woodpecker holes (which the house sparrows enlarged and populated) make an interesting study in avian biology; they also make a mess. More about the problematic house sparrow at this post. Suffice it to say, there’s a ton of work involved, including lift boom rental, that we must manage under lousy-hot conditions.

Bird-catcher, bird-rescuer, and bird-evictor. Here I am, keeping things in balance.

~

*The Birdcatcher is the title of a wonderful collection of poems by Marie Ponsot. I recommend finding a copy and reveling in her work.

Forthcoming

News!

Cover preview: 1980s Zine-style graphics

Okay, I’ve had some setbacks in the area of publishing recently. But–another chapbook is in the works, and here is the cover reveal, a graphic throwback to the early 1980s when photocopied zines were abundant and eccentric, which suits the eccentricity of the collection.

Many thanks to the folks at Moonstone Press in Philadelphia, especially to Larry Robin, who has been the resident angel of poetry events, books, and publishing in Philadelphia for decades (and I do mean decades). I almost referred to him as a poetry maven, but he’s more of a guide and stalwart in many ways. (However, I love this definition from Vocabulary.com’s dictionary: The word maven comes from the Yiddish meyvn, meaning “one who understands.” But to be a maven you have to more than just understand a topic, you have to know its ins and outs… You don’t become a maven overnight. That kind of expertise comes with an accumulation of knowledge over the years.) At any rate, after closing Robin’s Bookstore–an indie-publishing-supportive bookstore he operated for many years–Larry started the Moonstone Poetry reading series, the Moonstone Arts Center, and has been behind many other benefits to the poetry-loving community, including virtual and in-person readings and a press that publishes anthologies and single-author collections.

More about the publication date, where to reserve copies, readings, and about the book’s theme and histories will come later. In the meantime, excitement and gratitude.

Prose starts

In a recent post, I mentioned that one of the challenges of writing a speaker in lyric or lyric narrative poetry is that readers assume the voice, experience, or perspective of the speaker completely aligns with that of the poet. It’s especially confusing if the writer reveals that one poem does arise from or act as memoir/lived experience when other poems by the same author–that seem like memoir–are fictions.

I admit to being among said poets: my collection Barefoot Girls contains poems based on memories of my teen years in the 1970s, yet the stories therein are invented. Sometimes a poem starts as something that “really happened” but does not work well as a poem when I stick to the truth as I recall it. Journalism is not poetry (usually). Thus, in the revision process, the so-called truth gets reimagined…in order to craft lines that are better as poetry. I know that people who don’t write poems find this fact difficult to grasp.

I keep a journal–have done so for decades–and I tend to start poems one of two ways, either from image-based phrases I jot down or from prose entries. The latter approach, from prose, may indeed have a basis in lived experience. Here, I offer a concrete example.

The draft below started as prose but may evolve into a prose poem, may evolve into free verse, or may end up as metrical or formal, blank verse or pantoum. Or it may end up in the “Dead Poems” folder of forgotten drafts. Right now it consists mostly of lived experience, though I’ve already begun to fictionalize a few moments, blur a few lines about the ride in the car (there was another passenger), what he may really have said (heck, my memory’s not that accurate) and where my thought process went. I’ve also played around with line breaks and indents to help me visualize phrasing and rhythm. This is the way I often work.

I believe models and examples of creative working methods help to clarify what artists do. Yet some of it–especially among geniuses–is inspired, mysterious, and cannot be described. I wish I felt that inspiration more often. But I do not mind doing the work of rethinking, reimagining, revising.

~

My Son Drives Me from West LA to Pasadena
 
…talking the whole way about the job he loves,
new friends, old friends, how he spends
            his leisure time; where we can eat,
what he thinks about social movements and
government policies, whether it’s worth buying
            patio furniture, what we should do
next time I visit
 
and I’m listening, honest I am, but I’m also observing—
I can’t call it a landscape, really, as the view’s
            a swath of highway many lanes wide and
city blocks for untold acres dotted by walls of vivid
bougainvillea, beige buildings, tall palms under a sky
            perfectly cloudless, flat.
 
Then, a shift of geographic formation leads into
scrub brush, spotty suburbs, highway narrowing to
            a mere six lanes, and he says I’ll notice
real change once we get into the hills; the weather’s
usually predictable here, it’ll be a fine day. I’m listening,
 
but I’m also recalling times—many times—I sat
behind the wheel when he was far too young to drive,
            watching the road through the windshield
of the family car and listened to him tell me the thoughts
that flashed through his mind like a summer field of fireflies.
            Those trips I was privy to a newly-forming
perspective on the world, it was as though I listened to his
young mind crackling with ideas,
listened, and listening, with a joy I’ve never abandoned.
 
~

 
 
Photo by Anthony Celenie on Pexels.com

Parallels

I’m reading Margaret Renkl’s book of brief essays, Late Migrations, which evokes in me a revival of memories not too dissimilar from hers. We are near in age, and though she writes from Tennessee and Alabama, her unsupervised childhood running barefooted through peanut fields and along creek banks at her grandparents’ house feels parallel to my unsupervised childhood running barefoot along creek banks surrounded by small towns and cornfields. I too slept on the screen porch at my great-grandmother’s house, fan running, insects humming, heat lightning brightening the humid summer nights.

Renkl writes about watching Walter Cronkite on television and seeing the Viet Nam War, vivid to us in spite of the screen’s small size and black and white images. As teenagers in the mid-1970s, Renkl and I benefited from fairly liberal sex education classes in high school. I also benefited from a brief era of integrated junior highs and high schools, however; not the case in Birmingham, Alabama. Like hers, my parents scraped by in suburbs close to the city in houses with cement stoops and no porch. Though they eventually made their way into the solid middle class, my folks attained financial stability long after I had left home.

The essays note the change in climate, both cultural and natural, that has occurred over the past six decades. Renkl observes the increasing brevity of Southern winters and wonders how the temperature will affect the migratory birds–will they wait too long to head south? Will their food sources also change, or will the migrants find less to eat to sustain them, especially on the return trip north when they need to power up their bodies for mating and nesting? How will the birds navigate an increasingly human-altered globe-scape, a world of all-night lights and glass towers, wind turbines and redirected rivers? And will native birds survive the aggression or overpopulation of invading species?

I see that last concern in my Pennsylvania back yard, where the number of European house sparrows has probably quadrupled in the past three or four years. A passionate birder friend of mine has told me, flatly, “Kill them.” That seems harsh; in Renkl’s book, she gets the same advice about squirrels in her attic! There are, however, compelling reasons to find a way to discourage these aggressive and noisy little birds (see Todd Holden’s article here). My spouse and I have not yet gotten the heart to destroy birds, though they are enlarging woodpecker holes made in our cedar siding corner-boards and then nesting in the openings. We have had no bluebirds, except the occasional one just passing through, for four or five years. A coincidence? I think not!

The memoir aspects of Late Migrations resonate with me, and so do the essays in which she reflects on what we are losing (on earth and among our Beloveds). The author decides to let the chipmunks continue to reside in tunnels under her house and to leave the squirrels in her attic in peace. I’ve come to terms with our hungry, marauding whitetail deer population, our groundhogs, and the Asian stinkbugs, among other creatures. The house sparrows, though, are as bad as the mugwort, knotweed, and wintercreeper in our perennial gardens and hedgerows. I may have to take more meticulous precautionary steps before next spring arrives.

Meanwhile, I use Cornell University’s Merlin app early in the morning and late in the evening (when the house wrens are less vocal) in an effort to determine which birds are hanging out in our little ecosystem–the birds I can’t see, or that I can’t identify by sight (like the blackpoll warbler). Two evenings ago: a bluebird.

But it was just passing through.

Passer domesticus, male. Image from https://www.rspb.org.uk

Memoir-ish

When a poem uses a lyric approach, readers tend to assume initially that the poet is the speaker of the poem; in this respect, a reader might think of the poem as a personal revelation or–if the circumstances of the poem seem to warrant it–as a kind of memoir. People who have more experience with reading poetry (or who have been assigned to write a literary criticism of the work) may change their assumptions once they read more closely. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy poetry. It challenges my assumptions, surprises me, informs me of new facts and perspectives.

Prose memoirs, most of us assume, are less metaphorical and more “truthful,” at least from the writer’s perspective. Though there’s room for the unreliable narrator in memoirs, readers tend to feel betrayed if they determine the memoir writer hasn’t been honest with them (then we end up with controversies like James Frey’s). I find the blurring of genres rather fascinating, but generally, the folks I know who read memoirs want a mostly-unvarnished truth.

What about taking the memoir in a different direction: instead of blending or blurring toward fiction, into poetry? There are poetic memoirs in print, but they tend to be writers’ experiences expressed in poetry they’ve written themselves. Lesley Wheeler has opted for something different in her book Poetry’s Possible Worlds. Here, she uses the idea of “literary transportation” as a reader of poems, demonstrating how close reading can evolve into a form of reflection on, well, everything. She chooses 12 poems to examine, works that were not only resonant for her but that drew her into some understanding of why and how poetry manages to infect our gut feelings, exert its magic on the reader’s mind. She makes an interesting decision, too, in presenting 12 contemporary poems and avoiding the classic canonical works, a choice that focuses the reader on the newness of the text rather than on its famous backgrounding. It’s fascinating to me how this approach shook up my expectations. In this way, too, she does the readers and the poets whose work she’s curated a great favor: we get introduced to one another through a sensitive, penetrating interlocutor: Lesley Wheeler.

But the book does more than critique 12 poems; if anything, that’s the least part of Wheeler’s purpose. The book “qualifies” as memoir, in its genre-mixing way, because Wheeler explores her response to the poems through the lens of a difficult few years in her own life–here’s the memoir part. But instead of a prose memoir in chapters, each section acts as an independent essay centered around the poem she is reading and, as she revels in and puzzles through each poem, we learn about the challenges in her life. In this book, those challenges come largely from her unreliable, difficult father, whose betrayal(s) of the family snowball into messy misfortune. For Wheeler, poetry offered–still offers–transportation through the grief and anger and ways to navigate the gaps that all lives contain. I couldn’t agree more, and this book reminds me once again of poetry’s necessity.

In which she is briefly a curmudgeon

When I was about 12 years old, I found John Christopher’s YA Tripods books in the library. In this series, the humans on Earth have reverted to an agricultural, village-based society dominated by aliens who stalk the planet as giant “tripods,” three-legged metal vehicles in which the domineering hierarchy scans the population to make certain there are no outliers plotting to overthrow them. The aliens use technology to place a “cap” hard-wired into people’s heads when they are 12 or 13, and there’s a ritual ceremony surrounding it. The cap keeps humans docile and obedient to the overlords and contains a tracking technology so the aliens can locate where people are going, making sure there are no gatherings that might lead to revolution.

I found this idea terrifying. Somebody is in my brain, tracking my movement, forming my opinions, making my decisions, removing my imagination. It seemed like the worst thing that could happen to a 12-year-old.

I loved the books but had nightmares for years. And now, as one often feels when reading an older apocalyptic-fiction or sci-fi tale, I recognize a prescience in Christopher’s ideas. Instead of aliens implanting tech into our brains, we humans have found ways to implant ideas and sway the populace through entertainment and communication device use without wiring up the gray matter. Clearly, people can influence other people, “change their minds,” without actually entering the brain itself…though earbuds get awfully close to that vital organ. The cell phone/smartphone/tablet/watch (Google glasses, anyone?) seems a voluntary purchase to its users, but I’m old enough and observant enough to recognize a societal game-changer when I see one, and this has been coming for decades. The smart phone with its millions of possible apps has also become more necessary over the years, less of an entertainment purchase and more of a social need. I found this out when traveling by plane last week. I also discovered how pathetic my app-IQ is and that I barely know how to use my phone for anything but pictures, calls, and text messages. And yet it can follow me around, track my interests and movements, show me consumer items to tempt me to part with my money. Yo! Get outta my head!

Sometimes I do resent the way things have changed. Change, though, keeps us going. How can you have life without change? What is experience but change? I don’t see a need to waste my energy grousing about it, even if I have trouble embracing all of the changes I see or using the new tools. I still possess the “old” tools: I know how to cook from scratch, garden, build a fire, type on a keyboard, write in script, change a tire, wrap a sprain, navigate using a map, use a paper dictionary, read a book, preserve fruits and vegetables, bake bread. I can sleep without a sleep app, meditate without a meditation app, make a meal without a recipe app…I think independently. That hasn’t changed much since I was 12.

Here’s my curmudgeonly moment: We are not hard-wired into our technology, yet. It would be useful if we remembered that, however, while technology still has an off switch.

~

[I’ll be back to blogging about poetry matters soon…next post. Whenever that may be!]

Thysanura

The bristletails (order thysanura) are a group of wingless insects that includes Lepisma saccharina, the silverfish–one of the most common “bookworms,” although they are not worms! They nestle between pages, covers, and bindings of books, though books are certainly not all they eat. I must confess they are not among my favorite arthropods. Nonetheless, I class myself as a bookworm, though I’m far less voracious than some folks I know.

Therefore, I ought to note that my office on campus has been moved to my favorite place: the library! As I noted in some long-ago posts, libraries have been among my comfortable places ever since I was almost too young to read, and my maternal grandmother volunteered at her local library (notably as “The Story Lady.”) I still recall the jingle–from the 1960s–that accompanied a PSA for the library I loved as a 5-to-7-year-old.

~

ann e michael
The South Whitley Library as it was in 1967, with my grandmother in her Story Lady attire.

Anyway, it has longed seemed logical that the campus writing center be located where research takes place; we just had to find room. The library staff generously donated one quite spacious office room for the college writing center, and I couldn’t be more pleased!

My colleagues in academic support–my university department–are still housed in the basement of the main classroom building. I miss them, and they envy the fact that I now have a window (and that it’s not freezing up here). But while I would never knock the value of a window after 15 years under the frost line, I’m happiest about having my work office located in my favorite building on campus: the library. Books make me comfortable. When I need a break from my computer screen or from meetings, I can take a deep breath and walk around the stacks in silence. It’s perfectly acceptable to be rather introverted in a library. And the people who surround me are as enthusiastic about books as I am.

I plan to take a short breather from blogging and work-related stuff to visit a far-away Best Beloved and am already plotting which paperbacks to pack for the tedious flights. I hope to avoid silverfish and viral stowaways. Wish me luck.

Meanwhile, embrace your inner bookworm!

I searched for the most attractive photo of a silverfish I could find, and this one came from Encyclopaedia Britannica. Sorry, it was the best I could do. I’m sure another silverfish would find this one quite handsome. To the human bookworms I know: this is not meant to deride those of us who digest books with a healthy appetite. Just a metaphor!