Road Trip!

No road trip down I-95 is complete without the following:


1) Spotting an inexplicable food-like product.


&


2) Befriending a creature at South of the Border.


Often, these two can be combined in one stop, though this time the offending "ham" was spotted in North Carolina. Meet Speedy, whose shell is checkered a pleasing shade of Tarheel blue.


Last week I returned to Charleston to read at Monday Night Poetry & Music at the East Bay Meeting House. One of the pleasures of going to Charleston three times in one year is that I can now orient myself rather quickly. My first visit included an agonizing 45-minute slog through the outskirts...and I never even saw the water. This time I'd found a parking spot off East Bay and within minutes, here I was--already dreaming of the oysters I'd order at Pearlz. 





Host Jim Lundy did a great job packing the room, and he lined up charismatic guest emcee Jack Tracey so he could focus on taking pictures, which you'll find here. I was thrilled to see the faces of increasingly familiar friends, including Katrina Murphy, Richard Garcia, and many other members of the Poetry Society of South Carolina, which has to be the most vital and active state poetry society in America. 






...my theory is that anytime the bartender (in this case, Brit Washburn) steps out from behind the bar and reads a great poem, you're in the right place for the night. Also, that is my face on the very nice flyer behind Brit. I will never get used to going to a place and seeing my face plastered all over the walls. It's eerie.


I was home-hosted by a member of the PSSC Board who lives in Bedon's Alley, a historic downtown neighborhood where my father and I went sight-seeing on our last trip. We wondered what the houses looked like inside. Now I know: jaw-dropping.  







From Charleston I traveled to Georgia Southern University--a drive that turned a bit white-knuckled when I realized it would take an hour longer than I had planned for. But I made it, speeding-ticket free, and tumbled headlong into an amazing day of visiting three classes, a craft talk on projecting one's voice on the page, and a reading that drew from each of my books as well as new work. Tack on an interview for their school newspaper and a Thai dinner with two faculty members, and I was beyond beat. 


The GSU students had primarily studied the memoir rather than the poetry, which I always find intimidating. But I was deeply impressed by their sensitivity to the material, their curiosity about the science and cultural history I'd woven in, and their sophisticated questions. It made me want to start another nonfiction book right away. I also welcomed the chance to re-connect with Laura Valeri, my host for the GSU visit and a talented fiction writer I first met at the Sewanee Writer's Conference. This is the surreal backyard marsh view from her living room that I woke up to the next morning...




...where we drank strong coffee and nibbled on fresh-roasted peanuts her husband had made for us. So much of my book tour time is spent being "on," trying to inspire students and be mildly authoritative about navigating the challenges of publishing. But like anyone else I have doubts, failures, worries. It's important to get down off the pedestal--whether it be spent talking about love (mis)adventures at The Blind Tiger in Charleston, or commiserating over genre divides and agent adventures in a Savannah living room. 



Since I'd never been to the city before, I took a few hours to get lost downtown. I called my grandmother as I walked around Forsyth Park, eating blueberries from a bag Laura had packed for me. Savannah is a surreal place, and in many ways older than Charleston; perhaps because the war memorials are as likely to be about the Revolutionary War as the Civil one. But the city is a place for fresh, edgy art, fueled by the presence of SCAD, their students,  and their brand-new art museum, which features a gallery curated by André Leon Talley. 

Oh, I wish my sister could have been there with me! She's the fashionista of the family. 

Going from square to square appealed to me--it didn't take long to feel at home. So I do what one does when feeling at home. I found the nearest rooftop, in the Bohemian Hotel overlooking the river, ordered a Bloody Mary, and read 5o pages of a book. To be happily on a rooftop in February tells you something about Georgia weather. 


Admittedly, it was a looong drive from Savannah to Atlanta. There was some cheek-slapping and hollering to keep myself awake. There was a nap in a Chili's parking lot. But I made it--I got in around 1 AM at The Highland Inn, which is my all-time favorite artist's hostel, given room #333 (3 is my lucky number: good omen!), and told that I might be quick to see Jack--the resident cat--because I was staying next door to his owner. Jack was waiting, all right, and when I opened my door he darted in and made himself at home on the couch. I took that as another good omen. It was nice to have the company as I unpacked.




During the day I got lost at the High Museum of Art. Their "Picasso to Warhol" exhibit was a bit of a letdown--though the works are amazing, they are drawn entirely from MOMA, making it a bit redundant for anyone who has spent a lot of time in New York City. I wasn't head over heels for "The Art of Golf" either But all was redeemed by the stunning and naturally-lit upper floor of contemporary art (including a room of Gerhard Richter's work and a large Anselm Kiefer starscape that I'd never seen, even in my restrospective book of his work), the Bill Traylor exhibit tucked away on the ground floor, and the clever corkscrew design of the Stent Family Wing that tours one through different centuries of art.






Charis Books is a fabulous bookstore with a rich history of supporting feminists and women writers. Staffer Elizabeth Anderson is the best kind of bookseller, gracious and serious about handselling the titles and authors that impress her. Though our crowd wasn't huge (it didn't help that Matthew Harvey was reading at Emory the same night, oof), I was thrilled to have an all-star crew of Atlanta writers attend. Memoirist Jessica Handler and I went out for dinner beforehand; poets Collin Kelley and Julie Bloemeke joined me for a beer at the Brewmaster's Pub after. Both times the conversation was a perfect combination of shop talk and real life. And laughter--a LOT of laughter.


The next morning, as I should have been hustling toward that 12-hour drive home, I instead returned to wander Charis's neighborhood, Little Five Points. Whoa. You cannot think you know Atlanta until you know this place. I loved it, from the eccentric boutique The Junkman's Daughter (where pirate costumes and everyday corsets hang interchangeably on the racks), to the vinyl stores Wax n' Facts and Criminal Records, to the plethora of drafts (and glassware!) at The Porter Beer Bar, where I had delicious deconstructed adobo pork tacos. All packed in just a few dense blocks around the intersection of Moreland, Masfield, and Euclid. I've got to go back. 












But sadly...I can't go back just yet. For now, I must pack my bags for AWP in Chicago, then a reading in Urbana on my way back home. Always, the next drive is waiting. 


This week my poem "The Old Riddle" went up over at Site 95, an intriguing project curated by Meaghan Kent that combines visual arts and writing from up and down the East coast, with related on-site installations in New York, Miami, and elsewhere. (Site "95" = I-95, eh?) The poem is from the third collection I am working on now--a manuscript that deals with romantic love--and it definitely captures some of my experiences in the last few years. But it doesn't reflect my today. Today, my heart is full. 

More valentines

Proposal


Marry me before there is more death
in this world, before those we love

turn to ash. Each year, the trees grow
older. Each year, I believe the branches

will be full of bells and veils.
I have bent trumpets into rings,

folded sonnets into doves.
Don’t say we’ll wait

for an autumn of amber leaves.
It may not come. Don’t tell me

I look the way I did the day
my eyes closed with wine. I see my face

in the weathered sky. Marry me
before we become the dry bark

and leaves of those decrepit trees,
faithless that a winter rain will come.


Lory Bedikian
from The Book of Lamenting (Anhinga Press)
Winner of the 2010 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry

Poem in Iron Horse Literary Review

The latest issue of the Iron Horse Literary Review includes my poem, “Cedars.” The poem recounts cutting Eastern Red Cedars with my father to sell as Christmas trees at the flea-market when I was a kid. The poem will also be included in my book Lapse Americana, due out next year from New York Quarterly Books.

Sugarlicious

Like many MFA programs, my time at American University gathered together word lovers & English majors with a somewhat amorphous vision of what it actually meant to be a "writer." So one of the great pleasures of growing older is seeing the varied paths that my classmates (and in particular, a group of women with whom I shared many a birthday and brunch) have gone forward and taken in the world. One became a media specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts; one just took a job assisting in the direction of a university institute of ESL & American Studies; one has found happiness in freelancing and motherhood; one is a government worker by day, a renowned slam poet by night. 


Meaghan Mountford has taken one of the bravest paths by bringing her smart, funny voice to a genre so often riddled with banality: cookbooks, specifically baking books. Drawing upon years of experience as designer and manager at Bundles of Cookies in Bethesda, in 2007 Meaghan published Cookie Sensations: Creative Designs for Every Occasion. Her creations have been featured everywhere from Brides, to The Washington Post, to The New York Times, to umpteen thousand websites; her cookies were a finalist for favorite favors on "The Today Show Throws a Wedding." At her own Las Vegas wedding, each of our tables were adorned with individually wrapped, handmade, and incredibly detailed cookies depicting everything from a splay of playing cards to Elvis himself. 


This month marks the publication of Sugarlicious, her second collection of recipes. You can watch the adorable trailer here (1,300 views already! and I can't get that sweetly chipper banjo song out of my head!). There are also a number of giveaways, chats, etc. going on around the web that you can find details on here


When my copy arrived in the mail this week, I first took this glamorshot with my Valentine tulips--appreciating the great deal of care that Harlequin took with the production values. What a physically gorgeous book, and perfect page weight, too: heavy enough to stay flat when you open it. But I opened my copy with a touch of trepidation. As an allergy girl--totally unable to work with milk or eggs in my kitchen--would I be able to relate to these concepts? Or would it be a bittersweet survey of all I could never experience firsthand? 


I need not have worried. Anyone with a flair for design can appreciate Sugarlicious, which will develop in even the most timid baker an accessible and modular set of skills--melting coatings, shaping and coloring fondant, drawing with edible-ink pens--that can then be combined into any number of vibrant creations. One of Meaghan's niches is her innovation with using marshmallows as a focal point; she takes sweets that were once useful for nothing more than the garnish on a gingerbread house and turns them into canvasses for villages, zombies, and "kabobs." Here is the layout telling you how to make the latter:



...while I realize you might need to squint to see it, note that she shows you how to draw each one of those fruit and veggie designs. Swift, funky cartooning is an art; having labored over many a step-by-step guide to drafting horses and bunnies way back when, I appreciate how difficult it is to create a formula for an recognizable, iconic shape. Marshmallows were one of my favorite (read: only) treats as a kind--no egg, no dairy, just sugar and gelatin--but they were a bland afterthought to the other kids, who obsessed over decorating cookies and cupcakes I could not touch. I'd have loved a party where the entertainment was making marshmallow kabobs! A new generation of allergic kids can take advantage of Meaghan's insight and handy instructions. 


The book's attention to detail is a pleasure throughout, as are the vibrant photographs. While the designs are whimsical (garden gnomes partying down with pink flamingoes? Yes please~), Sugarlicious is organized in a practical manner that features articulated lists of "supplies" and "techniques" for each recipe, section dividers such as "Holidays & Seasons," a glossary of ingredients and tools, and a thorough index. Showing she hasn't lost her touch since Vegas, Meaghan is particularly good at designing desserts that double as table decorations. Why pay for flowers if you can have a centerpiece that is 10x as unique...and edible at the end of the night? Or, in the case of the layout below, you can use treats in lieu of place cards. It's a heck of a lot more appealing than a few Jordan almonds scattered around a tent-card lettered with pseudo-calligraphy.




Meaghan Mountford is an incredible writer, with a curious eye and unfailing energy. You can find evidence of that at the two blogs she simultaneously maintains, The Decorated Cookie & Edible Crafts. She's also an MFA-er savvy to the larger world of publishing, as this blog post detailing her road to a book deal attests. Harlequin and the cooking world are lucky to have her; you'd be lucky to have this book. Sugarlicious makes me want to get my hands messy--with flour, sugar, food coloring--and for a perfectionist neatnik like me that's a true compliment. This is the kind of book that guarantees an amazing Saturday afternoon. 

A sort of valentine

My Funny Valentine in Spanish

for Philip Levine

In the 7-11 parking lot, white boys are terrorized
By a Lincoln stereo punching out 98-decibel jazz. The scene
Reminds them unconsciously of high-art cinema shot
In ferocious blue illumination: the deep wax job
Of the Continental telegraphing the luster of the streetlights.
The stone-colored lawyer in an elegant linen jacket
Leaning on the fender while the digital self-service pump
Carries on its decisive artifice. Turned up this loud
Past midnight. Miles Davis is a cool apocalypse
Like nothing these boys on stolen skateboards ever entered,
A neighborhood in which no one remembers the depth
Of the aether where antifreeze and motor oil pool.
Or the white ghosts of congressmen obliterating angels' hairs
With their otherworldly logic. This is the music they play
In the tunnels of the underground where subways run
From Cambodia to East LA. In the barrios, children speak
The subjunctive—If this were bread, could one eat it?
And the love of God is a drug, like the love of death.
The abuela behind the 7-11 counter shuffles
And lays out the cards. Her abuela taught her this.
Five of clubs, three of diamonds: Every low card
Whispers its password and its alibi. There's an occult
Future here. Somebody makes it. Somebody loves somebody
And crosses the great water for a promise, on a dare.
Rodgers & Hart. The boys on their skateboards listen
To the trumpet whose language nobody taught them.
Mi enamorada graciosa, it might be singing. Mi corazon.
One morning somebody wants to blast somebody's lights
Into a pure cobalt vapor floating at the Pleiades' heart.
One morning the cash register and the Lotto machine are eclipsed
By a mist of tear-gas-shadowed perfume, the exhaust of the LAPD.
And one morning—Neruda made it past tense in invincible Spanish
That could not translate Franco into hell, or contradict
The bullets that distorted Lorca—Everything is aflame.
One morning the fires/Come out of the earth/Devouring people.

T.R. Hummer
from Walt Whitman in Hell


Other T.R. Hummer poems posted @ Against Oblivion:
"Fallacy of Accident"
"After"
"Zero"
"Useless Virtues"
"Olive Bread"
"The End of History"
"Blue Alexandrine"

I Lurve You. -- Happy Valentine's Day


_______

It Is Here (click here for audio)

(For A)

What sound was that?

I turn away, into the shaking room.

What was that sound that came in on the dark?
What is this maze of light it leaves us in?
What is this stance we take,
to turn away and then turn back?
What did we hear?

It was the breath we took when we first met.

Listen. It is here.


Harold Pinter
from Collected Poetry and Prose


Click here to purchase via Powell's Books.









Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.


Derek Walcott
from Collected Poems: 1948-1984


Click here to purchase via IndieBound.


Other Derek Walcott poems @ Against Oblivion:

"Forty Acres"

Early Valentine's Day with Frank O'Hara

All this week, because it's Valentine's Day tomorrow, I'm going to try to post a favorite love poem. Not necessarily love poems in the way we normally think of them, though I'd guess that kind will pop up, too. I'm going to post the poems that regularly come to mind when I think of the love poem. They may or may not be typical/atypical. But either way, it'll be a good distraction from the dissertation stress and a way to keep my hooks in poetry. So, today: two by Frank O'Hara.

_______



Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I'm with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o'clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it's in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven't gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn't pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it


Animals

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days


Frank O'Hara
from Selected Poems


Click here to purchase this book via IndieBound.


Other Frank O'Hara poems published @ Against Oblivion:

from "Mayakovsky"
"Poem"
"A Quiet Poem"
"The Day Lady Died"

Extreme Makeover: Writing Edition

I've got a new post up this week at Rock & Sling online, an experiment in community writing and revision partly inspired by the ABC television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition which came through Knoxville and my neighborhood last month.

I've wanted to do something like this for a while, but couldn't put it together because I didn't feel like I had the proper platform. Sure, I can participate in these kinds of workshops in person with local writing communities. I even co-direct one, The Brian M. Conley Young Writers' Institute, for the University of Tennessee. But I've had this idea of an online revision workshop kicking around for a while and now finally have the opportunity to give it a whirl.

Here are a couple clips and an excerpt from my entry:





I think it was a Monday last month that the road leading to our street was overtaken by flatbed semis hauling shipping containers, front loaders, and other sundry heavy equipment. Hearing all the racket from a location that was maybe a couple hundred yards from our back porch and just beyond the leech field and bramble, I only thought it peculiar. Figured it was the city installing new sewers or natural gas lines. 
That night, after the afternoon’s hullabaloo, I came home from work to find cop cars, projection lamps, and a roadblock sitting a few yards from where I normally turn into my street. I was waived down by a man wearing a windbreaker labeled “Security.” He asked me where I was going. I said I was trying to get home and he told me I could no longer go down this road and so I needed to find another route around to my street. 
I found out a few days later that the producers and crew for the ABC television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition had the road blocked in preparation for filming an episode. A Knoxville family was going to have their home completely demolished, hauled away, and replaced with a home that would meet all their housing needs and reflect all the wishes and personality of that family. By the end, it took maybe twelve days total for setting up, for the old to come down and the new to go up, and for hauling the equipment away. It also took the participation of 3000+ local volunteers
Reflecting on this event’s impact on our community, I was reminded of these words about revision from poet/critic Robert Pack: “Creation in its largest sense, then, must be though of as a process of creation, destruction, and re-creation. In this process we may become aware of powers we did not know we possessed.” Of course Pack is discussing the writing process but his words are equally applicable to what Knoxville has re-learned from the revision process of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition: the combined spirits of volunteerism and community-building can produce great things. 
It is within this framework that I’d like to issue a challenge to the Rock & Sling community. On Sunday, February 12, let’s each commence an extreme makeover of our own. Call it Extreme Writing Makeover, if you like. Each volunteer will choose a piece or writing to revise, one that needs to be demolished and rebuilt. Two weeks later, on February 26, we’ll meet again at Rock & Sling to share with our community our newly (re)built pieces and our thoughts about revision.
_______


Our university has had some very enjoyable readings the last few weeks, particularly one from UTK lecturer Erin Elizabeth Smith who brought in a standing-room only crowd to the twelfth floor of McClung Tower for a reading from her new collection The Naming of Strays (Gold Wake, 2011).

Erin's reading delivered the kind of gut punch that I needed at that moment. It is easy to be discouraged and distracted by rejections, manuscript near-misses, writing the dissertation, etc. I'd lost connection to the expressive value of simply sitting down with a pen and writing. Listening to a poem like the one I'll post below, I was reminded of the jouissance of writing, of moving beyond play and thought, past simple enjoyment or the limiting amusement of cerebrality, and into that state where the pleasure of writing becomes pain, a pain that just feels so good. Here's the poem:


Love Song for Myself


It is true.  I love you,

though you hang your wet towel on doorknobs,
leave your dishes in the sink for days.
Though you're ugly when you cry,
and each time I try to leave you,
quietly, while you sleep with someone else,
you call me a sonofabitch, though I'm a girl,
and our mother is a nice enough woman.

In high school, I hated you. 
The way you'd alphabetize your Joni Mitchells,
your bad girl punk, how you were never thin enough
despite the months I fed you nothing
but grapefruit and toast.  Hated the skirt
you'd wear that made that linebacker pin you
against his locker, your sandals nearly off the floor.

Yeah, I called you lots of names.  Sabotaged your senior prom,
sending you with a boy who would surely love you if you asked.
And the first time, in the Travelodge, when you bled like new
road kill, I laughed, knowing you'd hold your breath each time
you passed the place, like it was a graveyard,
like you'd breathe in your own busted soul.

But things change.  By twenty you were pretty hot
crossing and uncrossing your legs
for a boy you had no intention of fucking.
Drinking cheap beer on your back porch, alone,
the early summer sun rusting your shoulders. 
That night you played gin in the video store parking lot
the way the asphalt marked your legs like Braille.

I remember these things and love you for them.
But you are still unfaithful,
our pillows never enough, the bath barely warm
before you're reaching for a towel.
Don't you know that this is what some people would give
their left lung for, the kind of love
that leaves the mouth
of your heart
so wet, so bare.


Erin Elizabeth Smith

Trust Your Eye: On Ordering Poetry


One of the pleasures of my recent stay at Virginia Center for Creative Arts was the chance to spread out the pages of my manuscript-in-progress. This is something I've been able to do with each of my poetry collections, first on the walls of my studio at the Millay Colony and then on the floor of my apartment in DC. But I live in a much smaller apartment now, so this was my first chance to look at Count the Waves in this way. In the snapshot above, the far left is the end of the first section, curving upwards in a confident curl (that one feels most complete); then a cluster of colored push-pins marks the initiation of the second section, shaped like the symbol for long division; the third section, in the lower right, is pretty amoebalike at this stage. 


I've helped many friends and students order their collections over the past five years, and one thing I always say is Trust your eye. What I mean is that reading is not just an intellectual experience, but a physical one. Some poems are more tiring to read than others--even if their richness is worth the effort.  Though it is often smart to group poems according to voice or motif, make sure there is some variety of form on the page to keep the reader's energy level up. It's the same common sense as alternating moves in a work-out. You need to look at poems en masse, as shapes. Is the quatrain growing monotonous? Scan to make sure you haven't ended on the same word or syntactic trick three times in a row, even if it is a justified ending each time in & of itself. 


A few nights I purposefully slept in the bed VCCA provided in my studio so I could wake, bleary-eyed and slightly disoriented, to look at pages on the wall without awareness of individual texts. In this way I noticed my dominant line lengths and stanza structures, and saw places where I could resist those modes in meaningful ways. I found sequences that felt too "light" or too "heavy." I realized I couldn't have two "valentine" sestinas side by side, no matter how well they matched thematically. 


Later in the day and after a few cups of coffee, I continued to work in a way unique to this bulletin-board display style. I could flip up the latest draft to look at the previous days' drafts layered beneath it. When I pulled a poem out of sequence the empty rectangle that remained pushed me to interrogate what was needed to fill the hole--what question I had not yet asked of myself or of the collection. Sometimes I would pin up a page blank except for a title, then scribble & riff until something caught hold. (One night I had a visitor whose gaze became distracted; I soon realize he'd spied a blue-ink scrawl of "astral spunk.")


By the time I left VCCA, I had written six new poems in three weeks. But just as importantly  I committed to a whole new sequence in the third section, to balance a sequence in the first. I realized my closing poem was not really my closing poem, if only because it is ekphrasis and I don't want to share my ending with Whistler's drawings. I pulled a poem that had been discarded back in to open the second section, realizing that what I had worried to be its weakness--direct language, short lines--is the perfect parry before the winding, punny poem that will follow it. I love it when a poem you had a private affection for suddenly reclaims a home; it's like finding a $20 bill squinched into an old coat pocket.


A book isn't a project. A book isn't a pet. A book a lover, and you have to get to know it on all levels--mind, body, and soul. I'm glad to find out we're ready to live together. 


This post is featured over at the SheWrites blog, where I served as a guest editor this week. Check out the wonderful posts contributed by my fellow writers:


Laura Susanne Yochelson - "Enjoying the Process"
Bernadette Geyer - "What? It's Possible to Keep Writing After a Kid?"
Jeannine Hall Gailey - "How I Became a Poet, Or, Why I Write About Superheroines"
Eugenia Kim - "Romance of the Writing Life and Where the Writing Happens"
Lisa Fay Coutley - "Sentimentality Be Damned: On Gratitude"

"...whatever else we might think of this world - it is astonishing."

I first encountered Szymborska in my entry-level poetry writing workshop taught by Laurie Lamon who introduced her work as "essential." Later, after I expressed interest in Szymborska's poems, I was encouraged to seek out her Nobel Prize speech titled "The Poet and the World." I printed it out at the college library and still have it what must be twelve or thirteen years later. Here's one part I underlined and asterisked:
This is why I value that little phrase "I don't know" so highly. It's small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include the spaces within us as well as those outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself "I don't know," the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones and at best he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself "I don't know", she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and would have ended her days performing this otherwise perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying "I don't know," and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize. 
Poets, if they're genuine, must also keep repeating "I don't know." Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement, but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift that's absolutely inadequate to boot. So the poets keep on trying.
Yesterday I sent her poem "Clothes" to my poetry email list with the following comment, "This morning I took her collection View with a Grain of Sand off the shelf. It was an essential collection to me as an undergraduate and one I return to every so often now when I seek a quiet voice with a quiet authority to stir me some...If you don't know her work, I encourage you to seek it out."

In response, one of my friends wrote back saying, "Yes, 'seek' is the word she followed and we should too." I quite like this idea of "seeking" as being an integral part of her work and that it should be our attitude, too, that we ought to seek after poetry. Feels religious to me. It feels consequential and faithful, and rereading and transcribing these poems included below, poems which I'd bookmarked years ago in my copy of View with a Grain of Sand, I am reminded of the necessity of poetic desire and invitation/invocation, and that writing poetry ought to also involve as much hunting and hustling and humor and cleverness and yearning for the unknown depths of the human experience.

_______

The Onion

The onion, now that's something else.
Its innards don't exist.
Nothing but pure onionhood
fills this devout onionist.
Oniony on the inside,
onionesque it appears.
It follows its own daimonion
without our human tears.

Our skin is just a coverup
for the land where none dare go,
an internal inferno,
the anathema of anatomy.
In an onion there's only onion
from its tip to its toe,
onionymous monomania,
unanimous omninudity.

At peace, of a piece,
internally at rest.
Inside it, there's a smaller one
of undiminished worth.
The second holds a third one,
the third contains a fourth.
A centripetal fugue.
Polyphony compressed.

Nature's roundest tummy,
its greatest success story,
the onion drapes itself in its
own aureoles of glory.
We hold veins, nerves, fat,
secretions' secret sections.
Not for us such idiotic
onionoid perfections.



True Love

True love. Is it normal,
is it serious, is it practical?
What does the world get from two people
who exist in a world of their own?

Placed on the same pedestal for no good reason,
drawn randomly from millions but convinced
it had to happen this way--in reward for what? For nothing.
The light descends from nowhere.
Why on these two and not on others?
Doesn't this outrage justice? Yes it does.
Doesn't it disrupt our painstakingly erected principles,
and cast the moral from the peak? Yes on both accounts.

Look at the happy couple.
Couldn't they at least try to hide it,
fake a little depression for their friends' sake?
Listen to them laughing--its an insult.
The language they use--deceptively clear.
And their little celebrations, rituals,
the elaborate mutual routines--
it's obviously a plot behind the human race's back!

It's hard even to guess how far things might go
if people start to follow their example.
What could religion and poetry count on?
What would be remembered? What renounced?
Who'd want to stay within bounds?

True love. Is it really necessary?
Tact and common sense tell us to pass over it in silence,
like a scandal in Life's highest circles.
Perfectly good children are born without its help.
It couldn't populate the planet in a million years,
it comes along so rarely.

Let the people who never find true love
keep saying that there's no such thing.

Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.


Wisława Szymborska
from View with a Grain of Sand



Other Szymborska poems @ Against Oblivion:


"The Joy of Writing"

VCCA (Off I Go)


Oh, sun! Damn you. You might as well rise. 

At my last VCCA dinner, I looked over and saw a table of entirely new folks, unfamiliar faces all having the same conversation I had three weeks ago--Where are you from? What are you working on?--and I thought, It's time to go. The totally superfluous helping of cauliflower drenched in Sriracha sauce while everyone else got dessert? Pairing another glass of zinfandel with a mug of full-strength coffee? Also signs that it's time to go. One of the things I've learned about myself is that I'm really good at being away from home for about three weeks. But if I'm gone for four weeks or more, something gets broken. 

Then we had a Fellows reading that illuminated two women I've been sharing tables with for days. One poet I now want to talk to about formal poetry, Anna Akhmatova, South Carolina. One nonfictioneer I want to talk to about biography, Africa, self-doubt. These will not be conversations I get to have. We sat in the living room after their reading, laughing and talking, but I wanted more. I wanted a colder day so we could use the fireplace one last time.  I can't be going already!


It is easy to be glib about friendships you make at art colonies. A photographer and I were joking about it on our walk back to the main house. "I wish he were younger..." he said of a third resident, "...but I already know why it wouldn't work." Another artist I overheard say "Let me get your email, so we can do that thing where we never get around to actually writing each other." You go from 0 to 60 MPH in terms of confession, intimacy, irritation. For so many of us, at home our work is both the thing we love best about ourselves and the thing most isolating. Here, the latter half of that drops away. The problem with getting to know people at their best is that their worst, when discovered, comes as a much harsher shock. And I of all people know that. 

Still I delight. I open the studio door at 4 AM to find hearts chalked in lieu of a doormat, and I delight. This is not a place to bother keeping your guard up. 

I got the writing done. Poems, prose, even something that paid. That gives me comfort as I ponder packing bags (did I really need this many skirts and sweaters?) and pulling push-pins out of the wall. Count the Waves is coming together. I refined sestinas, rescued a poem from banishment, embraced my animalia, committed to a new sequence, gave a reading that left me feeling hopeful. This third poetry manuscript is harder than the last but maybe it is richer, too, pleasures hidden a little under the surface. I just have to provide enough glimmer to tempt a reader to do the digging. 

See you on the flipside, friends.