It is a particularly lovely autumn in the region, colorful, clear, dry and mild. This evening at 5 pm: 70 degrees F, crickets and frogs singing. My mood has, however, been unsettled–and I have not been writing much. Indeed, this feels like a good time for a hiatus on a number of fronts and in a number of ways. I recently read Katherine May’s Wintering, which was not terribly memorable but which offers the reader support for, well, resting. Resting one’s bones, mind, endeavors…seasonally apropos.
Mostly I’ve been on a Murakami kick, reading three books that a recently-departed friend had with him in his hospice room. Novels take the place of doing my own creative thinking. I get wrapped up in their worlds and can rest from my own. Thus reading is a form of wintering. (May agrees.)
My poetry output has been minimal recently, and I have hardly sent out any work; mostly, I feel tired and eager for the semester to come to a close (one month or so hence). There are reasons for this it is not necessary to go into. But I miss the writing.
I will return to the “best words in the best order” in my own time. So if you follow this blog, don’t think that I have fallen off a cliff–I have merely oriented differently, for a time.
Meanwhile, please remember that there are books for sale you can find on my ‘My Books’ tab. Support the small-business publishers of poetry now, for poetry is as necessary as ever, and not a luxury.
Where do I start? With a winter solstice poetry reading in Brooklyn, in a dark room on a dark night; his poem evoking a Di Chirico painting made my head explode, the work was so much more interesting than anyone else’s. But we didn’t speak that night. I met David before the equinox the following year, at a critique workshop run by the people who had set up the solstice reading: Merle Molofsky and Les von Losberg.
David didn’t have a presence; he was a presence. He read in a growl, with a slight lisp and a Brooklyn accent, and he could quiet a room. The poems were not lyrical or narrative, nor formal, nor confessional–they were jazz-like, full of strange images that sounded like surrealism and yet were not. He wrote prose poems and free verse and tiny little aphoristic pieces that sometimes made me laugh and sometimes broke my heart. He was not famous. He had not studied with well-known poets. But he had much to teach me, I thought, from the first time we sat around a table and read our work to one another.
I found I listened more closely to David’s responses to my work than I did to other participants’, though as a fairly novice writer, I valued any critique. I liked that he often mentioned the work of poets he’d been reading, talked about their approaches and influences on his work. We started going to Gotham Book Mart together, searching the poetry stacks to score exciting contemporary writers and out-of-print classic collections. He told me to read Stanley Kunitz and James Lowell, Faye Kicknosway, Denise Levertov, Gerard Manley Hopkins. He had me listening to avant garde jazz, which I’d been introduced to in college thanks to a friend who was into Anthony Braxton and Dave Holland, and expanded my listening to include Don Cherry, the Chicago Art Ensemble, Albert Ayler, and many others.
His analysis of what was working in my poems, and what could work better, helped me to learn how to revise and rethink my work on my own. I gained a bit of confidence in my ability to figure out what sounded clunky, or wordy, or slightly “off.” He taught me not to be so hard on myself and to feel okay with putting a poem away for awhile–or forever–and letting the piece settle down so that, later, I could read it again and review its problematic areas less emotionally. He made me believe that my writing was worth reading, and that I was really a writer. Really. Not just faking it. In so many ways, he mentored me and my poetry. David encouraged me to submit to magazines and to let the rejections happen without feeling doubt about the value of the work. Although the value of that early work was…probably questionable, we’d look at the rejected pieces again and decide whether further revision might be needed or just a different reviewing editor!
As we got to know one another better, I learned about the challenges of his growing-up years, when he lived with his mother behind his grandmother’s millinery shop while his father was in prison for treason, in the US–following two years in a Chinese prison in Korea as a POW. Gradually, I heard about his dad’s release and inability to re-enter society, his parents’ divorce, his mom’s remarriage to a decent man who loved music but whose son, David’s step-brother, struggled with mental illness and died in a suspicious fire when David was about 20 years old. David’s outlier personality, his temper, his size–he was a large man who had been a fat boy, teased and bullied–found release and love through music, poetry, and dogs.
Also baseball, boxing, Star Trek…but we talked about those less often
The other thing we conversed about frequently was frame of mind, particularly depression. Both of us were visited by depression frequently when we were in our 20s and 30s, and it was such a boon to have someone I loved and trusted who understood the “mood” and what a toll it could take on everyday life. When I married and had children, the need to feel less depressed got me to more reliable psych care–and I had better health insurance than David did. Sometimes he was chronically short of income, laid off, on unemployment, taking jobs in record stores, borrowing from his folks. He went a couple of years without health insurance or reliable health care, even though he was diabetic. So getting good therapeutic assistance for his chronic depression fell to a low priority, unfortunately. I tried to be there to listen to him, however, and he was always there to listen to me. We gave one another comfort during the doldrums, lassitude, and weird loneliness depression inflicts. And we reminded one another to write!
I miss him almost every day, though he died back in 1999. My book Water-Rites contains a section devoted to him and tries to convey the devastation I felt at losing him.
But you never really lose a mentor, right? They are always with us/in us.
Adrian Owles. That was her anagrammed alias. She used that name for things like electric and phone company bills when her real name set off “overdue payment” notices, resulting in her inability to get services. She did, in her youth, have a conniver’s sense of how to skive and get away with it. To some degree. She learned the skills from her father, a brilliant alcoholic from a once-wealthy family. From her mother, she learned poetry and an idealistic, romantic outlook on life…but also that she should be independent and never rely on men to take care of her or keep their promises.
Well, maybe she learned that last part from her father. Her parents never divorced, but her father was an absentee dad. That’s the picture she supplied to me. I suspect it was true, but I know only a tiny part of her story. Ariel Dawson, my poetry mentor, was a year younger than I but so well-read, aware of the “poetry scene,” reading craft essays and books before I knew such things existed–and taking reasoned issue with some of the writers, too, in ways it never would have occurred to me to do. Question such recognized authority? I would not have dared.
What is a mentor? A kind of teacher or model of behavior? Ariel’s behavior was far from conventional, which did appeal to me. We hitchhiked from Michigan to NYC and back. We stayed up almost until dawn and drank wine and talked about poetry. We ganged up on the poor man teaching a creative writing class at our college by questioning his pronouncements and asking about poets and poetry he had not specialized in. We sneaked into bars without paying the cover charge or having our IDs checked (Michigan had a liquor law that permitted 18-year-olds to drink, but Ariel was only 17). I kept wondering quietly to myself: Is this how poets behave? Is unconventionality necessary to the craft?
Well, yes and no. A certain aspect of the unconventional probably helps writers of any kind, but risky antics are not required. An individual perspective on heartbreak or trauma can be useful. Some of Ariel’s stories made me fear for her, feel heartbreak for her; if I never knew how factually true they were, I sensed a fundamental truth in what she told me. One example is her “love affair” when she was 13. She believed she was having an affair with a man in his early 30s who was from Pittsburgh, which she thought was an eastern seaboard town (so much for Detroit’s 1970s educational system as far as American geography goes). He disappeared one day, and she set off by herself to find him in Pittsburgh, where the police eventually located her. They sent her home to her mother. Now I look at this story as grooming by a pederast, but at the time she considered it oddly romantic of her. What makes trauma, if the victim doesn’t feel traumatized? If she can imagine the experience into something naive and…sort of like love?
Ariel’s poems appeared mostly in the early 1980s in print magazines; she taught creative writing at a couple of universities, but eventually her love of dreams and the mythic led her to pursue Jungian scholarship. Last I heard, she was working as an analyst in New York state. Perhaps unfortunately, she remains best known for a letter she wrote to the Writer’s Chronicle/AWP Newsletter in which she took a stance against New Formalism. She always did love a controversy.
My book Strange Ladies is dedicated to her memory. For a whole bunch of reasons and for a number of Ariel stories I can’t even begin to relate here. But most of all, because she urged me to write. And to revise. And to read as many poets and as many craft books as I possibly could. And never stop learning, and keep on writing. She got me to give poetry readings aloud to an audience. She kept me laughing. She was wild and lovely, and I am sorry she is no longer among us.
Meanwhile, here is the link to register for an upcoming Zoom reading by some strange ladies, including yours truly:
This evening, a steady rain at last, one I hope continues for hours. It is too late to save my vegetable garden but will help trees, shrubs, flowers as they set seeds, birds as they migrate.
Earlier today, I harvested a few remaining veggies. I cut some zinnias for bouquets and watched as a newly-emerged monarch butterfly unfurled its antennae and proboscis and dried its new wings. As often happens in the late-summer weeks, I pondered what to do for the next year’s garden. A surprising thought took shape: letting the garden go fallow for a year. After all, the patch has been working hard for over two decades now–shouldn’t it get a break?
My thought process then admonished me about weeds. The majority of the weeds that would crop up in a fallow patch well-composted over the years will be non-native plants. Those are what mostly come up in our meadow, though we do have many natives as well. But the meadow isn’t rich soil like the garden is. True, I have nurtured some natives even in the vegetable garden. I grow three varieties of milkweed as well as native asters, rudbeckia, and goldenrod (not to mention the native vine poison ivy, despite my best efforts to eradicate it). The milkweed was, this year, much appreciated and eagerly consumed by monarch caterpillars. Still, if I do nothing in spring but let the patch go fallow, I’m likely to find it has been claimed by white clover, dandelion, purslane, Canadian thistle, mugwort, garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, Amur honeysuckle, and other common weeds that originated in Europe, the Caucasus, or Asia.
Okay, but I’m a champion at weeding in the springtime. I could pull out many of the invaders just as they are getting started. What if, however, I allowed some sprouts to grow? The volunteers, as gardeners call them, that come up on their own after wintering as seeds in the ground or in the compost–I could let them stay wherever they popped up. In this way, the garden would design itself, instead of me being the designer. It would be a year of surprises! I like that idea. I love a good experiment…why not find out what my garden wants to do, after 25 years of me trying to tell it what to do?
I can make some good guesses as to what I might find: morning glories, zinnias, some variety of squash, tomatoes of mixed parentage, nicotiana, sunflowers. Basil, possibly; chives and cilantro and dill, almost certainly.
Anything else really would be surprising, but this year I had a cantaloupe volunteer, and its fruit was quite tasty. It gets below freezing here for months in winter, and I have never had lettuce volunteer; however, I haven’t let it go to seed, either. It might survive, as the radishes seem to do.
The more I mull it over, the more I like the idea. I like the experimental aspect of it, and the speculation and the surprise. It means that instead of preparing the soil in spring, all I’ll do is spread the compost out as usual–but not dig it in. I’ll water if the spring is dry, but mostly pay attention to the things that sprout and determine as early as possible whether those are edible or ornamental, or just weedy. The downside is that I’ll get all those marvelous seed catalogs and…will I be able to resist? Also, my spouse will complain. He likes a well-laid-out, well-delineated garden so he knows where he can step and where he shouldn’t, what to water, and what to pull out. He may also object initially to the aesthetics of an unplanned truck patch. But around mid-June, I will be admiring my volunteers. It will be beautiful.
Always I find metaphors and analogies between the gardening process and the writing process. The way I put my recent chapbook (Strange Ladies) together was similar to the theory of an all-volunteer garden. I drafted those poems at different times over many years and let them sprout even though they did not seem to fit in with my other writing projects or plans. After awhile, I realized they made their own kind of peculiar and surprising design.
I recognize that experimentation is a big part of my writing process. I love just playing around with words and ideas; when I first started writing more purposefully, my poems were often a bit surreal and strange. Over the decades, I’ve experimented with craft, prompts, natural world imagery, poetic form, philosophical and speculative concepts, and memory. It’s hard for me to say where my style or genre of poetry fits. I experiment, but most of my poems are not “experimental.” Much of my work uses observations of the natural world as major image and motivation, but I am not quite a “nature poet.” It doesn’t really matter how or whether my poetry fits an identifiable description. I weed as I go along, and I let anything that looks interesting (or familiar) show me its stuff.
That’s a natural process that reflects the way I think, the way I experience the world, and the various ways I find to express myself to readers. [Crafting and revising–that’s less spontaneous, though it can have outcomes just as surprising.]
A pebble is dropped into a deep well, and 3.0 seconds later the sound of a splash is heard as the pebble reaches the bottom of the well. The speed of sound in air is about 340 m/s. (a) How long does it take for the pebble to hit the water? (b) How long does it take for the sound to reach the observer? (c) What is the depth of the well?
Indeed–what can we determine based upon the little we know for certain? This physics problem came to mind when I was listening for responses to, say, a short poetry collection that came out recently. (Yes, Strange Ladies.) And I recalled a visit in 1984 to Goodrich Castle in Ross on Wye, Herefordshire, England, where we did just that–dropped a small stone into the well–and waited what seemed a long time for the sound to reach us. From what I understand, tourists can’t do that anymore; the National Historic Trust has upgraded the ruins to make them safer to visit. The tourist board doesn’t want anyone falling down wells.
But I digress. I meant the metaphor to apply to how writers listen eagerly for response to their work once it is published. Will anyone review it? Will anyone read the review? Will anyone post about it on social media? Will anyone contact the writer to say those words we want to hear: “I love your book!” –?
Sometimes, yes. And for those who have done so already, a million thanks.
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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.